Discourses on ageing are usually dominated by different themes and perspectives. One crucial element that is conspicuously missing in most of the narratives is the growing feminisation of ageing.
Need for a Gendered Approach – It is of paramount importance that a gendered approach be adopted because women today constitute the fastest growing group among the older persons and their experience of ageing is not the same as men. WHO recommends that gender should be the lens through which should be considered « the appropriateness of various policy options which affect both men and women ».
Differential Life Expectancy – It cannot be denied that life expectancy has increased dramatically since the last quarter of the past century This is mostly due to tectonic development in life-saving technologies, unparalleled progress in the provision of health care and the concomitant improvement in the overall quality of life. In Mauritius, life expectancy in 2018 for both sexes combined was 74.8 as per WHO figures. However, if we make a breakdown, we have the following ;
Male : 71 years
Female: 78.1 years
In fact, in 2019, out of 96,416 older persons above 64 years, 38,570 were males and 57,842 were females [Statistics Mauritius].
In other words, women have a longer lifespan than men. In the final lapse of life, they outdistance men convulsively. There is no better illustration of the feminisation of the ageing phenomenon than the sex distribution of centenarians in Mauritius. Out of some 156 centenarians, some 125 are women.
Implications – One of the consequences of this social phenomenon is that as more wives outlive their husbands, many women live the last stages of their life as widows with no companions to share their joys, sorrows and sufferings. More often than not, solitude gnaws at them and they easily fall prey to bouts of loneliness. Unlike men, they have less opportunity to start a new life due to restrictive norms and social taboos. Society tends to view negatively any desire on the part of an older woman to start a new life with a new partner.
Economic Vulnerability – Economically speaking, older women are in a less enviable position than their male counterparts. As many women have been housewives and spent their lives in unpaid household work combined with uncompensated care-giving, they have not had the opportunity to veritably earn an income and contribute, so to say, to an insurance scheme that would have enabled them to top up the old age pension provided by the state. As a result, women end up with less financial security and fewer savings to support to an adequate standard of living in old age.
Inheritance Rights – In most countries today, women have equal rights to inheritance as men. In reality, however, it is often not the case : customs usually prevail to the detriment of women. Parents tend to favour their male progeny. By appealing to emotions and traditions, they often goad their daughters to forego their rights to parental homes and at times even to landed properties in favour of the male siblings. Concomitantly, these women end up with less assets in old age and are thus more vulnerable economically.
Abuse and violence – Older women are generally more exposed to abuse and violence than men. The figures compiled by the Elderly Persons Protection Unit of the Ministry of Social Security reveal to what extent violence against older persons is gendered. For example, in 2018 , the Unit registered 1174 cases of abuse against older persons, out of which 837 concerned women who were allegedly victims of maltreatment, physical violence, food deprivation, neglect and abandonment.
Health Inequities – Due to biological differences, women may spend more money on medical treatment and medicines as with age they become more prone to female-related diseases.
According to WHO , the incidence of osteoarthritis between the ages of 60-90 rises twenty-five fold in women than in men. Osteoporosis is 3 times more common in older women than in men, ostensibly because of the hormonal changes that take place following menopause.
On the other hand, Alzheimer and dementia is higher among women for the simple reason that they live longer than men.
Conclusion – According to UN WOMEN, the fastest growing cohort among the ageing population is the oldest-old women, that is those aged 80 and above. In fact, by age 80 and above, for every 100 men there are 180 women worldwide ….a strong enough argument for a need to adopt a gendered approach on ageing.