Aging population a challenge for Balkan nations

22/10/2012

A study finds that poverty and loneliness are most significant issues facing elderly citizens.

By Bojana Milovanovic for Southeastern European Times in Belgrade -- 22/10/12

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Social services agencies are working to address the issues faced by the increasing elderly population across the Balkans. [Reuters]

With elderly populations rising, governments across the Balkans are discovering there are common problems as they work to improve social services for aging citizens. Studies have shown that the most significant issues facing the elderly are poverty and loneliness.

Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) each count about 17 percent of their population age 65 or older. In Croatia (15 percent) and Montenegro (13 percent), the elderly populations are smaller. But 30 years ago, when the countries were part of the former Yugoslavia, just 8 percent of the population was 65 or older.

In Serbia, as in other countries in the region, family still plays the predominant role in providing social support and care for senior citizens.

But increasingly, the government is finding new ways to provide support.

In the last 30 years, according to the Institute for Gerontology in Belgrade, the number of long-term care facilities for elderly people has increased by nearly 20 percent.

According to the UN Population Fund, efforts in the public sector to further improve elderly care in Serbia include structural reforms of the social and health care systems, as well as establishing senior citizens' centres.

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Poverty is one of the most significant issues facing elderly people in Balkans. [Nikola Barbutov/SETimes]

In 2011, the ministry of labour and social policy re-established the National Council on Ageing, an expert advisory body to the government meant to ensure an action plan is implemented.

“Unfortunately most of the ministries still don’t see their role, and they still do not see this problem of ageing as a burning issue in our country," said Marija Rakovic, national programme officer for the UN Fund.

The average pension in Serbia is about 200 euros per month, which is barely enough to afford food and heat during the winter months.

Serbia has around 1.4 million pensioners, with about 500,000 of them receiving less than 150 euros per month, according to the State Pension and Insurance Fund. That total includes government aid that is paid in quarterly installments.

"That aid means practically nothing to us, it only helps us pay a bill or two, settle our obligations toward the state and that's it," Milanka Otovic, 67, a pensioner from Belgrade, who receives state assistance, told SETimes. "If something is left, I will buy my grandson a present, since I don't have money for such things otherwise, only for the basics."

In Croatia there are 1.5 million pensioners, and the average pension is around 300 euros per month. Montenegro has around 100,000 pensioners, with the average payment of 270 euros. Bosnia has almost 400,000 pensioners, with the average payment of around 200 euros.

Serbia's State Secretary at the Ministry of Social Affairs Brankica Jankovic told SETimes that elderly people who live in poverty and are in isolated areas are especially at risk during the winter months, when they have difficulty paying to heat their homes.

"Single elderly households will certainly fall into the category of jeopardised energy consumers," Jankovic said. "We will pay special attention to the distance of elderly households in rural areas, given that they need help the most. A woman living alone, particularly a widow, is the most endangered category of the elderly population."

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About 17 percent of Serbia's population is in age 65 and older. [Nikola Barbutov/SETimes]

Jankovic added that workers from Serbia's social care centers will undergo special training, with a focus on the needs of the elderly.

"As soon as one enters the social care system, their needs are constantly monitored. Our employees will also go out into the field," Jankovic said.

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A quarter of the elderly in Serbia claim they have been discriminated against, and more than half said the state does not take sufficient care of them, according to a survey conducted by the Centre for Study of Cultural Development in Belgrade, which investigates cultural issues in local communities.

"This sounds worrisome, but unfortunately similar statistics are visible in European Union countries as well," one of the authors of the survey, Bogdana Opacic, said in a statement to SETimes.

According to the survey, 31.6 percent of the elderly say they feel discriminated against by younger people and 31.4 percent say the health care system discriminates against them. The survey also found 30.2 percent of elderly people said the state is the largest source of discrimination against them, and 25.5 percent said their own families discriminate against them.

"The data on the inactivity and loneliness of the elderly are depressing," Opacic said. "The elderly in Serbia often, in 46.4 percent of cases, believe that the people around them do not share their interests, and loneliness and lack of company are felt by 42.4 percent of them. The elderly cite a lack of will, motivation and money as the main reason for inactivity and staying at home."

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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