Malta has been fortunate in enjoying a culture of care and concern for the elderly. The majority of families are still close, both physically and emotionally. Elderly grandparents play a large and positive role in family life. Respect for the elderly is mostly high.

But the pressures and pace of modern life have not passed Malta by. Whereas in former days old people would live at home with their families in their old age, now the tendency is for them to be placed in old people’s homes. Malta is generally blessed with some first-rate government and private homes for the elderly. The care is generally good, even though they are placed among strangers and feel distanced from their immediate family.

There is nonetheless a darker side to this picture. The Commissioner for Mental Health and Older People has drawn attention to the increasing abuse committed against vulnerable elderly people. Some carers in residential homes have been found to be brusque and cruel in their treatment. Greedy families, too, have been known to force elderly relatives to sign Powers of Attorney to take over control of their assets. The general quality of life of the elderly in society – in a world where ‘active ageing’ should be the catch-word – has not been given sufficient importance by governments.

While previously suspected, this has been drawn to public attention during the recent marking of World Elderly Abuse Awareness Day. Commendably, the government has acted by proposing a new Bill to safeguard the interests of the elderly in Malta.

The Parliamentary Secretary for the Elderly has introduced an amendment to Malta’s criminal law which will impose penalties against those committing crimes against the elderly. In future, elderly people who are robbed could start getting their money back from the perpetrators more quickly by making such crimes liable for damages immediately upon sentencing.

The amendments will also tackle other aspects of elderly abuse, such as those situations where old people are cut off from social contact by those who wish to take advantage of them, normally for financial gain. The definition of abuse will therefore be broadened to include financial and emotional abuse. As part of the exercise to identify the needs of the elderly in Maltese society, the government also proposes to bring forward legislation to appoint a Commissioner for the Elderly to act as the focal point for all elderly matters.

In a rapidly ageing society, such as Malta’s, there are, however, other areas where the government needs to direct its attention. Last year, a United Nations study examined the quality of life of the elderly in 91 countries, using different indicators to assess how well their ageing populations were faring. Malta ranked a lowly 77th on rights of older people to employment and education.

Access by older workers to the labour market and their ability to achieve economic empowerment through education were limited. The study found that the employment rate of those aged 55 to 64 years was a low 30 per cent, whereas in the EU it stood at almost 50 per cent.

As has repeatedly been pointed out, one of the most potent challenges facing Maltese society is how to pay for people’s retirement given the rapidly diminishing size of the working age population to sustain it.

A serious policy to encourage active ageing and to keep more elderly people in the workforce would repay dividends, not only by increasing their contribution to Malta’s productivity and economic growth but also by enhancing their sense of dignity, pride and self-worth.

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