The ageing population is becoming one of the biggest challenges in Latvia as life expectancy is increasing and the proportion of seniors is growing. According to the Central Statistical Bureau, at the end of the previous century the proportion of elderly people (65+) in Latvia did not exceed the 15% limit, while in 2019 around 20% of Latvia's population was aged over 65. In this respect, Latvia is not an exception, as in the European Union (EU), on average, the proportion of people aged 65+ was around 20% of the total population in 2019. In Eastern and post-Soviet countries, the ageing population is being accelerated by labour migration and other factors. In Latvia, the ageing population is uneven, particularly affecting individual regions, Latgale and Vidzeme, as well as the big cities. Demographic forecasts show that Latvian society will never be as young as it was before, and in the coming decades along with a rapid increase in the proportion of older people the ageing of the population will accelerate.
The ageing of population is a long-term and irreversible process that cannot be stopped but the country can seek to mitigate its negative consequences. This opinion leads to a reassessing the concept of age and may lead to a change in the paradigm of ageing. Over recent years, the stereotype of ageing as “spending the last few years of life” has become obsolete, and a new picture of retirement years as an active, diverse and meaningful phase of life should be developed.
The average retirement pension in Latvia is one of the smallest in the European Union. But even if the size of the pension was adequate and matched the real market prices, material welfare would not be the only issue that concerns seniors. In the mass media there are endless stories about the low income and unsecured needs of a “poor pensioner”, programing people with persistent discontent with themselves, with their surroundings and lives in general. In the eyes of economically active people, too, the image of the elderly is portrayed as constantly pleading for something. This leads to deformation of moral values as it creates the illusion that it is not sadness, loneliness, the loss of the meaning of life that cause the suffering. Redeploying funding and ensuring the long-term availability of medical and social assistance should not be the only method how social challenges arising from the population ageing are addressed.
One of the main welfare conditions for older people is regular social contacts.
Research results show that seniors more than other age groups are exposed to risks such as social isolation, loneliness, depression and diseases associated with nervous system disorders. Those who are involved in public activities and maintain a high level of interaction feel better and are more satisfied with their quality of life. And vice versa, seniors who lack social contacts are more likely to feel lonely and suffer from social isolation. For people in old age, it is no less important than for young people to have new impressions: flavors, smells, movements, emotions. This is not because of boredom, but rather for maintaining a normal state of physical and psychological health. The spread of the principles of active ageing, including lifelong learning opportunities and the involvement of older people in all spheres of society, is important.
There are elderly people who do not know where to go for help or counselling and they lack understanding of legal matters. In addition, raised in the time of authoritarianism, when the most important human qualities were diligence and submissiveness, many seniors still feel unconvinced when dealing with officials and are afraid to defend their interests. Most people over the age of 65 are either single or widowed. These are mostly women whose average life expectancy is well higher than men’s (by 10 years in Latvia). After losing a spouse or friends, they feel lonely and unnecessary, many face age discrimination (agism), psychological and even physical violence. Ageism faced by many is reflected in the negative stereotypes of the population about the elderly.
The effects of the ageing population are seen in a number of areas of life. The reduction in the number of working people is also reducing tax revenues, making it difficult to accumulate the part of the social budget spent on social security. It is a serious threat to the quality of life of all age groups. Economic growth is slowing down, the structure of the labour market is changing – a shortage of skilled labour is emerging. It is inevitable that consumption levels are falling, personal savings are decreasing. The rising proportion of older people in the country is causing increased costs related to the provision of medical care, especially in the long term. The political consequences are also significant when taking into account the experience of the already “aged” countries, such as Japan, where politicians depend directly on the most powerful social group - the seniors. Seniors are hugely influential because the older generation traditionally participate more actively in elections than young people. Many political and economic decisions are taken on the basis of their own interests.
Lifelong learning for seniors
One of the commonly accepted practices to mitigate the negative consequences of population ageing is lifelong learning for seniors. The myth that an ageing person is less and less capable of acquiring new knowledge and skills has been completely overturned and it is long since we have started talking about continuous education throughout life. In some cases, participation in lifelong learning programmes is marked by a desire to continue working careers, however special training facilities have emerged in several countries around the world for seniors who do not plan to work.
Third-generation universities (The University of the Third Age) are a widely developed international movement; they use diverse forms of training and their own ways of organizing their work. In general, the objectives of U3A (social inclusion of seniors, strengthening health, prevention of social isolation and loneliness) and programmes are similar, but names often differ from country to country: open university; open-time university; grassroots school; grassroots university; intergenerational university; university for all ages, etc. Despite differences in U3A models, seniors are actively taking advantage of the opportunity to learn, acquire useful skills and competences, do not stop in their development. But the most important result may be simply a systematic load on the brain to prevent or at least distance neurodegenerative disease (Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, etc.). In general, training programmes for seniors include courses such as computer training, law and financial skills, healthy nutrition, English or other foreign languages at the level of the spoken language, dancing, choir singing, crafting, and others. Increasing the level of education of the elderly will increase their ability to use electronic forms of public and banking services, take active participation in voluntary work and make other positive changes that will have extensive social consequences.
In Latvia, seniors are not yet included in the lifelong learning system, although the first training courses have been taking place in different cities - Riga, Daugavpils, etc. As a U3A analogue in Kraslava, a “Senior School” was created in 2015 (more can be found in Facebook under Senioru skola/Школа сениоров). Their lessons take place once a week at the Central Library of Kraslava county. There are around 30 people attending each class to spend time usefully and learn something new. Similar senior schools are open in Kuldiga and Aglona. The majority of older people attend courses and educational programmes mainly for the pleasure of learning and to be in contact with other visitors, not for the purpose of obtaining a certificate or diploma.
The experience of such learning centres shows that active ageing lifestyles allow you to feel your affiliation with a group of people, help to distract the elderly from feeling sick, sad and anxious. By engaging in regular and interesting activities, people are less at risk of depression, less sick and less prone to medical treatment, better aware of public processes and enjoy bigger life satisfaction.
Latvian society is just beginning to get used to the new demographic situation and to think about the prospects for the next few years and further future. At the same time, older people are increasingly aware of their untapped opportunities and want to continue to live a meaningful life long after reaching retirement age.
Tatiana Azamatova, founder of Pieci airi (Five Oars) Society for Social Development.
The Society organizes and implements an informal education course for retirement-age people at the Seniors School in Kraslava. The author has a bachelor's degree in sociology and master's degree in business administration.