Ageing is a normal biological phenomenon and refers to a slow imperceptible, progressive degenerative process advancing with chronological age, leading to increased functional deterioration and vulnerability, ultimately culminating in extinction of life. Ageing often refers simply to the process of growing older. It is a biological reality, which (despite medical interventions) has its own dynamic, and is largely beyond human control. It is also subject to the constructions by which each society makes sense of old age.

There is no hard and fast rule about the age beyond which a person should be considered old. In developed societies, chronological age plays a paramount role and the age of 65, roughly equivalent to retirement age, is said to be the beginning of old age. But in developing countries like Bangladesh, chronological age has little importance in defining old age. It is seen to begin at the point when active contribution is no longer possible. However, the age of 60 years is a realistic statistical definition for ageing in Asian and Pacific regions, particularly taking into account average retirement age, legislation, health conditions and so on. Actually 60 is generally the age at which governments and agencies start defining 'old age' but life expectancies are different in different places and there are many things which affect a person's ageing process.

A small proportion (around 6%) of the total population of Bangladesh constitutes the elderly population, but the absolute number of them is quite significant (about 7.2 million) and the rate of their increase is fairly high. The elderly population (aged 60 years and above) in Bangladesh in 1911, 1951, 1981 and 1991 were 1.37, 1.86, 4.90 and 6.05 millions respectively and the projected figures for 2000, 2015 and 2025 are 7.25, 12.05 and 17.62 millions. This change in population characteristics will have serious consequences on society as well as on the overall socio-economic development of the country.

As an Asian country, Bangladesh has a long cultural and religious tradition of looking after the elderly and it is expected that families and communities will care for their own elderly members. But rapid socio-economic and demographic transformations, mass poverty, changing social and religious values, influence of western culture, and other factors, have broken down the traditional extended family and community care system. Most of the elderly people in Bangladesh suffer from some basic human problems, viz poor financial support, senile diseases and absence of proper health and medicare facilities, exclusion and negligence, deprivation and socio-economic insecurity. About 80% of the aged live in rural areas. Their sufferings are the cumulative effects of a lifetime. The following is a brief description of the characteristics of the country's elderly people of different societal groups:

Rural and urban poor they live in absolute poverty and ill health, do not have regular sources of income and therefore, are highly dependent on others for food, clothing, shelter and healthcare. Interestingly, these people do not complain about major psycho-social problems and rather, show total faith and dependence on supernatural power and religion. The elderly urban poor, however, have some access to general urban facilities. But they are worse-off in terms of support and assistance from neighbours and community organisations, while in rural areas, the elderly poor get some sympathy and assistance from near and distant relatives or neighbouring well-to-do families.

Rural affluent elderly people of this group are mid-level and big farmers, traders and members of the traditional and elevated cultural levels. They live in extended families and receive sufficient regard, care and significance.

Urban middle-class older persons of this class are socially, culturally and economically better-off. They comprise groups of retired mid-level officials or businessmen and often possess a secured place of residence. Most live in extended families and enjoy facilities almost similar to those enjoyed by the rural affluent group. But they may also face urban political and administrative complexities, anxiety, exclusion, economic hardship etc. They try to overcome these situations through some social service activities.

Urban rich these are mostly retired senior employees of reputed organisations, high government officials, or owners of big trading houses. This group of older persons rarely faces any financial problems. Members of their families as well as the community usually have high regards for them and pay importance to their opinions. But older persons of this group often feel isolated, lonely, and neglected, as their descendants usually do not live with them and remain busy in their own circles and activities. Elderly people of this group enjoy the privilege of providing community leadership or keep themselves busy in religious activities and social assignments.

In addition to the above groups, there are other types of elderly people. These are physically, mentally or socially handicapped old people, aged widows, widowers or single or old persons without any close friends or relatives. They encounter old age problems more acutely. Total dependency, insecurity, inferiority, helplessness, fatalism and increased observance of religious activities are their common features. This category of older people needs and deserves special care and attention from the community.

The aged persons in an average Bangladeshi family are often treated as a burden. Many old men are often seen begging in streets or asking for charity. Not a few are seen in risky work, despite their broken health. Old people live in frustration and suffer from illness and pains without care and company.

Currently, two types of care and service systems are available in Bangladesh for the elderly people - traditional or indigenous, and modern. Modern services are offered by both governmental and non-governmental initiatives. Traditional services include care by the family or relatives, charity or alms giving, and permission to live in religious premises such as mosques, graveyards, mazars, and dargas.

Government programmes designed for the aged are mainly in the form of pensions, introduced since 1924, but available only for a handful of retired government and industrial employees. Recently, in mid 1998, the government introduced a new pension programme bayaska bhata (allowance for the aged), under which the 10 poorest and the most vulnerable old persons (five men and five women) of each union/ward are given a monthly allowance of Tk 100 each. There is, however, no public safety net for all poor elderly people living either in urban or rural areas of Bangladesh. A few non government organisations have programmes directed specifically at old people. However, their services are confined to outdoors and indoor medicare, maintenance of oldman's home, recreation facilities for the old people and seminars, workshops, training, research and publication activities. Bangladesh Association for the Aged and Institute of Geriatric Medicine are the oldest and largest of all organisations working for the wellbeing of the elderly since 1960. Some universities are expanding their curricula to include courses that focus on ageing. [ASM Atiqur Rahman]