We see the signs of poverty everywhere in Manila, especially when it is nighttime and raining. There are the little girls selling sampaguita flowers in the traffic. In the rain, their faces float up to the windows of our cars as mermaids did long ago bewitching old sailors. (Are the little girls safe from predators?) Five or six-year old boys hang on to the back of racing jeepneys, so they can beg from passengers when the jeepneys stop. There are 12- and 13-year-old prostitutes in the North Harbor area of Tondo waiting for customers each night. We see whole families pushing karitons of junk or camping out along the side of roads at night, with just a small fire to cook their rice. Stone Age people may have had more of this world’s goods than our scavengers.
The saddest sights of all, however, are the old people begging in the traffic. At the car window is an old woman’s arthritic hand asking for help. Despite her problems her face is warm and maternal. She should be in a dry and comfortable home taking care of babies and telling stories. It’s sad that a government must prioritize either its children or its aged and doesn’t have enough funds to do both.
The above images are just snapshots of poverty, while the Coalition of Services of the Elderly, an NGO, has made a survey of the elderly poor conducted by the elderly poor themselves that shows the very wide extent of poverty among our elderly people.
It wasn’t intended to be a scientific, academic study, but it offers scale—about 4,000 elderly poor people in Metro Manila were interviewed—and it guarantees that the elderly speak their minds since they are talking to their friends and neighbors. The number of responses to each question varies. There may be three slightly different responses to a question that are basically the same answer.
The survey was intended to investigate the situation of the “poorest of the elderly poor,” a phrase used in the law granting the elderly a monthly pension. It is estimated that there are 900,000 to 1,000,000 “poorest of the elderly poor” nationwide. If the elderly poor throughout the country have the same problems as those in Metro Manila, we have a very sad human situation. Will our old poor people live out their lives in poverty?
Food. Some 90 percent or 1,863 of the 2,000 elderly who answered this question said they got their food from their families, but it was never enough. Another 10 percent said they must beg each day for food, or they got their food daily from garbage cans.
There are thousands of elderly people in the country eating out of garbage cans. We might wonder how 60 members of Congress from such a poor country can attend a fight in Las Vegas.
Health. A plurality of answers (1,362 persons) said they had checkups, but could not afford the medicines prescribed; 728 said they were sick, but could not afford the medicines they think they needed for their sickness; 428 others said they were sick, but could not do anything about it.
They are all saying the same thing: they cannot afford the medicines they need.
Support. Some 1,153 elderly people answered that they had no pension; 950 said they had no means of support; 115 said they were dependent on others, or they had to beg and scavenge each day to survive.
This last group included people in their 70s and 80s. The majority (1,643) lived with their families, but they said this is not adequate; 40 said they lived alone. In addition, 94 said they had been abused by their families and 70 said they had been abandoned by their families.
It is clear that big majorities of our poor elderly persons in Metro Manila eat poorly, cannot afford the medicines they need, lack cash in any form, and are not happy with their living quarters.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His e-mail address is email@example.com.