On July 9 to 11, 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) Meeting on Ageing and Health for the Western Pacific Region was held in Manila. Together with representatives from the Department of Health (DOH), the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) was tasked to present a Country Report on government policies and programs promoting elderly care and welfare in the Philippines. Other representatives from the DOH included Dr. Irma Asuncion, and DSWD’s regular partners, Dra. Elizabeth “Bambi” Caluag, and Ms. Remedies “Jing” Guerrero. Besides Atty. Germaine Trittle P. Leonin of the National Coordinating and Monitoring Board (NCMB) Secretariat, DSWD was also represented by Director Patricia Luna, Asst. Bureau Director Paz Sarino, Ms. Marlyn Moral of Social Technology Bureau and Ms. Fritzie Barrameda of Standards Bureau.

It has been a particular advantage for the Philippines to have clear mandates in our 1987 Constitution, identifying the senior citizens as a vulnerable and marginalized sector. Moreover, provisions on Social Justice and Human Rights clearly mandates raising the quality of life for all. Other national laws like the Magna Carta of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) as well as the Accessibility Law are PWD-related legislation which may be taken advantage of by our senior citizens.

Meanwhile, the prime legal basis, Republic Act No. 9994 as the 3rd version of the senior citizens law tries to be a comprehensive, integrated piece of legislation for addressing the needs of the senior citizens. Besides healthcare provisions, it tackles educational opportunities, continuing employment, availment of livelihood skills training, as well as social pension benefits. And, besides the relevant legislations for senior citizens like the Expanded Senior Citizens Act of 2010, our national sectoral plan – the Philippine Plan of Action for Senior Citizens (PPASC) 2012-2016, especially the area of concern “Advancing Health and Well-being” was highlighted in the Country Report.

The DOH’s thrust of promoting “healthy living and active ageing” was also something to be proud of. A key to well-being is healthy eating and proper nutrition. Food choices and basic cooking preparations were just as important as the amount of food intake. Nutrition and proper eating is also a strategy which can be used effectively to address health issues and other diseases. Besides genetic tendencies and ageing consequences, lifestyle practices also contribute to health risks. Avoidance of vices such as smoking and alcohol drinking, and most of all drugs, was also emphasized. Being prone to certain injuries because of weakness and frailty, especially for those slowly ageing already, assistive devices and safe, age-friendly environments such as facilities and transport are important.

 As such, with the healthcare needs being a major part of the ageing policies and programs, there is a need to focus on improving the health human resources component as well – be it institutionalizing geriatrics and gerontology as part of the curricula of various disciplines and not just the medical field, or giving specialized trainings for the “non-formal” medical practitioners, such as TESDA-trained caregivers and community-based, homecare caregivers.

It is also important that there should be a proper institutional arrangement or mechanisms in place to implement the policies and programs for senior citizens. Thus, the National Coordinating and Monitoring Board (NCMB) and its regional counterparts, the RCMBs, as well as the Office of Senior Citizens Affairs (OSCA) are quite significant. It was also interesting to cite that the active participation of our senior citizens groups, as organized and established federations and associations ensured the sector’s direct involvement in all matters pertaining to them. However, even as the DSWD and the DOH are able to work together and are currently coordinating well, it is still highly advisable that there be established a primary government agency which shall focus on the elderly population and all its related concerns, much like the other sectors of children, women and PWDs, for the purposed of having clear and unified policy directions, a specific budget allocation, including a dedicated workforce contingent.

Although the WHO meeting seemed mainly focused on healthcare for the elderly, most of the recommendations recognized the need for an integrated, comprehensive approach to elderly care. This includes an improved financial capability that meant continuing education, employment or livelihood opportunities, assured pension benefits, accessible and affordable health programs and services, etc. Based on the sharings of “Best Practices”, the Philippines should be proud of its government efforts and measures promoting and protecting the rights of our senior citizens. With all the recommendations about having an “integrated and comprehensive” approach to elderly care, our RA 9994 alone exactly seeks to accomplish that already.

Given the current discussions at the United Nations-level in New York, particularly the Open-ended Working Group on the proposed UN Convention on the Rights of the Elderly, a specific treaty or convention as an international human rights instrument which demands compliance is always a strong compelling basis for national governments to give attention to the needs of a particular sector. The DSWD provided essential comments and inputs to the country position the DFA hoped to advance in August 2013 in New York. The WHO, as a UN body, was requested to make a similar positive representation in New York to support this stance.