Sri Lanka's economic crisis leaves elderly homeless and penniless

Senior citizen Kiri Banda rests at a public park after walking around and begging for change in Colombo, Sri Lanka on January 30, 2023

Senior citizen Kiri Banda rests at a public park after walking around and begging for change in Colombo, Sri Lanka on January 30, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Piyumi Fonseka

What’s the context?

An economic meltdown has forced some elderly people onto the streets as their families can no longer afford to care for them

  • Economic crisis strains family elderly care systems
  • Large numbers of older workers lack pensions
  • Some turn to begging, charities to cope

COLOMBO - When Kiri Banda retired from his job as a cook in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, he hoped for a peaceful old age living with his son. But with his medical bills straining household finances last year, he decided it was time to move out.

"I didn't want to be a burden," said Banda, who spends his days begging or searching for food and sleeps on a bench in a public park.

It is an increasingly common sight since Sri Lanka plunged last year into its worst economic crisis since independence in 1948, bringing soaring food prices, medicine and fuel shortages, and angry protests.

"Life is difficult in Sri Lanka, even for younger people, so how about for older people like us?," said Banda, 84, as he sat hoping for change from passers-by.

The government is scrambling to secure a $2.9 billion bailout package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), though President Ranil Wickremesinghe has warned any hold up could send the country spiralling once again.

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The crisis is also bringing specific challenges to elderly people in a country that traditionally depends heavily on families to help with their care.

Many retirees lack pensions and some families can no longer afford to look after them.

Elderly people are also facing shortages of medicines and a squeeze on funding for government welfare, including the cancellation of programmes offering free contact lenses and financial assistance for self-employed workers, both of which were specifically targeted at older groups.

The National Secretariat for Elders, the government body that implements welfare programmes for older people, is offering support including a temporary monthly allowance for more than 650,000 people, said its director K. G. Lanerolle.

"Restricting the welfare and security of Sri Lanka's elderly population to a single institution poses a major challenge given the limited resources during the current economic crisis," he said.

Growing elderly population

Island nation Sri Lanka has the fastest-growing ageing population in South Asia.

Already, about 16% of its 22 million-strong population are aged over 60, according to the World Bank. By 2041, that will rise to one in four.

"The growth of the elder population has grown to the point where it is a social problem," said Lanerolle.

Sri Lanka has no universal pension system.

Gaps in schemes' coverage and availability - especially among workers in the informal sector - leave many vulnerable elders without income.

Former lab technician S.D. Priyadasa, 82, is among those not covered by a pension scheme.

His savings ran out long ago, mostly spent on medical treatment for a diabetic ulcer in one of his feet.

He must walk nine kilometres (5.5 miles) each month to get a 5,000 rupee ($14) handout from a longtime friend friend who lives in the Colombo suburb of Mount Lavinia, and shares the money with his widowed, disabled sister and her young children.

"I sometimes eat one meal a day," said Priyadasa.

"All my sister and I care about are the health and education of her kids, who are still very young. I am just trying to make sure they will lead a better life than us before I close my eyes forever."

Senior citizen Irene Peiris talks about her worries over her future at an elderly care centre in Ratmalana, Sri Lanka on January 20, 2023

Senior citizen Irene Peiris talks about her worries over her future at an elderly care centre in Ratmalana, Sri Lanka on January 20, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Piyumi Fonseka

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Milran Peiris and her sister Irene, both in their early 70s, receive a monthly payment of 7,000 rupees ($19) from a better-off sibling.

But soaring inflation means that it is now only sufficient to pay the rent for their one-bedroom flat.

They too must make a long trek - two kilometres each day - to reach a daycare centre for the elderly managed by international charitable organisation HelpAge which provides all their meals for free.

"We used to work in a garment factory. We have been independent women all our lives. We don't like to beg. But I fear that one day this help will end," said Irene Peiris.

Rising need

Charitable organisations said they were overwhelmed with requests for help for elderly people.

HelpAge Sri Lanka has seen a clear rise in demand for food and other help among the elderly since the economy went into meltdown, said its executive director Samantha Liyanawaduge.

It has been offering support including mobile medical units and home care services, but says the state must do more.

"We are being asked to play the role of a government. We are trying our best," said Liyanawaduge.

The social empowerment ministry, which includes the National Secretariat for Elders, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Single mother Nishanthi Fernando is among those who found themselves making impossible choices during the current crisis.

Fernando runs a small grocery shop in Thalpitiya, to the south of Colombo city, and used the income to support her autistic son, aged 12, and her 67-year-old father. Her husband walked out on her and offers no financial support.

Last year, she realised her meagre income was no longer enough for both, especially as her father's medical expenses kept rising.

"I felt dreadful. I had only two choices - either harming myself or letting my father go," said Fernando, who thought of killing herself due to the stress.

"My son has only me. So, I had to ask my father to go to an elders' home."

Fernando pays a small fee towards the charity shelter's costs and visits him whenever possible.

"If I had a well-paying job, I wouldn't have sent him to a place to be cared for by strangers," she said.

"But I know elders' homes aren't a terrible thing. They will give him the caring that I cannot give."

($1 = 362.0000 Sri Lankan rupees)

(Reporting by Piyumi Fonseka, Editing by Sonia Elks)

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