By Helen Ovbiagele, Woman Editor
WHATEVER our situation, rich or poor, high or lowly, the first thing on most prayer lists is ‘long life’. We spend all our life working towards a peaceful, happy and prosperous old age.   For a handful across the globe, God makes this possible. But for many, especially the masses, this is elusive.

They work their fingers to the bone, living from hand to mouth, and month-end to month-end, and they spend the twilight of their years in penury, unhappy and depressed. With high unemployment at all levels, you cannot rely on your offspring to be your meal ticket in your old age.   In fact, with many graduates roaming the streets in search of jobs, some parents continue to cater for their grown children.

In many western countries, old age is revered and appreciated and there is a welfare package for people when they retire or attain a certain age. In the United Kingdom, at the age of sixty, you become an OAP (old age pensioner). You get your monthly pension regularly if you had been working; and everyone gets free health care, and free travel on the bus or train till the end of one’s days.

If you’re still active, there are vocational courses that are run by the local government which will train you for some skills or hobbies, and there are recreational activities and excursions.

Elderly residents

In some States in the United States of America, there is a specific day of the week when elderly people are given discounts in purchases made in some departmental stores. For elderly residents in some States who have no cars or are unable to drive, there’s a government bus service which goes to their residence to take them out to do their weekly shopping.

They pay one dollar for this service. Housing for the elderly is a priority. With all these incentives provided by the government, old age ceases to be regarded with dread and trepidation.   You actually look forward to it as a relaxed and enjoyable period of your life, when you’ll have the time and peace of mind to look on the world outside, with interest.

As we all know, there’s nothing on the ground by the government for old age in Nigeria. You have to save and invest towards it yourself, or train your children well so that they can look after you financially in your old age.   Now. these days when banks go distressed at the drop of a hat, whatever money you put away there can disappear.

That is, if you had been able to save meaningfully; a thing which eludes most citizens. It’s no longer wise or safe to stash your life’s savings under your bed or in a hole in the ground. Very few people are in a position to invest in property with which to enjoy a comfortable old age.

You’re lucky if you have your own roof over your head during your life time. Most people remain tenants all their life. Then, is it fair to expect your child to be lumbered with all financial responsibility for you, when he/she is struggling to eke out a living somehow? That leaves the government.  What is it doing to prepare an enjoyable old age for you? Nothing. If you’re a pensioner, the government is disrespectful enough to expect you to queue up for identification before you’re paid.    Several elders have collapsed and died on these queues, but does the government care? No. Forget about the National Provident Fund (now under another name) to which you forcibly contributed while in employment.

I’m yet to come across someone who actually collected his/her benefits from this organization. Aren’t they supposed to give us an account of what our funds with them is? Some of us were glad when we read in a national daily last month ‘Senate Passes Bill On Elderly Persons’ Welfare’. The Bill was sponsored by Senator Ganiyu Solomon, a former member of House of Rep. for Lagos, and also a former Chairman of Mushin L.G. The Bill seems a good move, but when I read ‘the Senate has passed a Bill for the establishment of the National Centrefor the Elderly Persons, to provide them with welfare and recreational facilities, I wondered who the beneficiaries would be.

‘The Centre, when established, will primarily be charged with the responsibility of “providing basic welfare, maintaining and protecting rights of older persons, recreational facilities for the old, as well as stimulating consciousness towards attainment of higher levels of development and activity for older persons in Nigeria.” Help! That knocked the breath out of one! The Bill is loaded!

What are the basic welfare things to be provided? What aspects of old people’s rights would be protected? Recreational facilities for the old? Where would these facilities be sited, what will they be, and who will benefit from them? Will they not be places where the older elite will go play squash, tennis, snooker, etc., and perhaps down a drink or two to wind down, just like at their usual Clubs?

Will there be facilities which will enable the  elderly, right down to the grassroots, have a better and more fulfilling life? Will the facilities be tailored to the needs of the masses?

Senator Heineken Lokpobiri who presented the report said” its provisions would mitigate untold hardship of the vast majority of the elderly people in the country. The bill is a landmark one that seeks to give proper legal support for this segment of our population who suffer untold hardship.”

The two senators meant well and they said the right things. My worry is how the Bill will be implemented, and whether the elderly in the low income group, or with no income at all, will benefit from it.

Knowing our nature, !et’s hope that in a few years’ time, we won’t have to set up a probe to find out what happened to the money for setting up the Centre, because ‘there’s nothing on the ground to show for it.’ We will then set the EFCC (if it still exists then) at those deemed to be the ‘offenders’, following the result of the probe; push them around a bit for a while, then the dust will settle as they’re left alone, and we will turn our attention to other things.

On the other hand, the Bill may actually be so well implemented that the elderly people will be able to collect their pension and allowances in a respectable manner; they will receive free healthcare: their housing will be a government priority; recreational centres for the elderly masses will be established all over the country; and the elderly can begin to look forward to their twilight years with joyful expectation and excitement.

Meanwhile, please pardon my pessimism about any government here being masses-friendly.

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