Every year, October will be observed as the month for the elderly

Younten Tshedup 

As the world celebrated the International Day for Older Persons yesterday, Bhutan went a step ahead and declared the entire month of October as the month for recognition of older people in the country. 

Throughout October, health facilities across the country will provide health screenings, including screening for various non-communicable diseases and assessment of mental health conditions for the elderly population. 

At the end of the first day of the month-long screening, over 1,100 elderly individuals across the country were screened for various health-related issues.

During the launch of the programme yesterday, Sowai Lyonpo (health minister) Dechen Wangmo, said that October was a special month for Bhutanese, as it was the month of the Royal Wedding 10 years ago.

Given the importance of the month, Lyonpo said that an initiative to pay tribute and celebrate senior citizens in the country was the right fit. “Elderly people are respected in Bhutan. The role of a parent to bring up a child is highlighted in a common phrase that we often use: ‘drenchen gi pham’, which indicates the responsibilities that we must shoulder to take care of our ageing family”.

Along with declaring the entire month as the month for older people, the health ministry also launched two other initiatives: priority signage across all health facilities for people aged 65 years and above including those with disabilities, and a dedicated health and wellbeing handbook for the elderly.

Lyonpo said that, unlike for the young population, it is not easy for senior citizens to queue in line and wait for hours to avail themselves of health services. “This is an initiative which is in line with the government’s pledge to narrow the accessibility gap and also promote people-centred health services with care and compassion.”

The Ministry of Health (MoH) also issued health and wellbeing handbooks to approximately 50 senior citizens who attended the event yesterday to document all medical conditions, treatment histories, any home-bound care needs, and follow up check-ups.

The minister said that the elderly care programme was initiated at the ministry in 2012, but not much had happened on the ground. “For the past year and a half, we have been extensively working on how best we could look after our elderly population and establish a system whereby we are taking concrete steps taking care of our senior citizens.”

She added: “This is a small initiative towards the promotion of healthy ageing in Bhutan and personally I’m very excited.”

The MoH has line-listed all of the elderly population in the country since last year when this group of the population was identified as the most vulnerable to the Covid-19 pandemic. Currently, there are 42,632 elderly people in the country, out of which 34 percent or 14,662 people are living with various medical conditions.

Former minister Kinzang Dorji, a member of the Royal Society for Senior Citizens (RSSC), said that one of the major challenges concerning elderly citizens in Bhutan is their health. “The event today is a huge milestone decision from the government. As long as we can take care of the health aspect, we are in a good position to take care of other challenges that our senior citizens face.”

He said that the comprehensive health screening services that will be provided to the elderly in the country will be of tremendous benefit to all the senior citizens.

RSSC member, Dr Sangay Thinley, said that health is one of the major worries of senior citizens, second only to income, shelter, and neglect in a few cases.

“We in Bhutan are fortunate and blessed to be senior citizens. We are ever grateful to the Ministry of Health for having put in a community-based elderly care programme and aligning it from time to time based on the developing needs of the elderly,” he said.

He said that the life expectancy in Bhutan has spiked to 71 and above. “We the senior citizens are ever grateful to His Majesty The King, the government, and various sectors including healthcare for making our lives comfortable and meaningful. In these times of the Covid-19 pandemic, extra care and medications have been granted to protect us from the disease.”

In the meantime, Namgay Tshering from Taba said that the new initiatives introduced would greatly help people like him avail health services. “I can already see things becoming a lot easier for me. I will not have to wait for hours to get my check-up at the hospital, which has always deterred me from visiting health facilities so far.”

The 76-year-old man said that he was grateful to His Majesty The King and the government for the thoughtful initiatives.

Edited by Tshering Palden