Albania's Ageing Problem
By By Jaime Pozuelo-Monfort
Albanian Daily News
Published September 28, 2015

The first World Assembly on Ageing took place in 1982, a time at which population ageing was predominantly an issue only addressed by developed countries. When the second World Assembly on Ageing was held in Madrid twenty years later, ageing was becoming a global trend impacting also many emerging developing countries.

The second World Assembly on Ageing taking place in Madrid in 2002 drafted The Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing, which focuses on three areas according to the United Nations: older persons and development, advancing health and well-being into old age, and ensuring enabling and supportive environments.

Two United Nations specialists on ageing visited Albania between October 11-14 , 2011, subsequent to Albania's Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities' request to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs for provision of technical assistance regarding the situation of older persons in Albania. Among their conclusions the United States officials stressed that (quote):

1. Before the 1990s an average pension amounted to 70% of the average wage while now it has decreased to only 30%

2. Raising awareness can be done by sensitizing national policymakers

3. The national infrastructure on ageing is underdeveloped. The mission noted a lack of coordination among government offices dealing with ageing and related socio-economic and demographic issues

Ermira Pirdeni is the Executive Director of Albanian Society for All Ages (ASAG), an NGO she founded in 1999. Prior to her current appointment, Ms Pirdeni who prefers to be called Mira, was Secretary General of Albanian Women Federation from 1995-1999 and Founder and Board Member of the Democratic League of Albanian Women between 1991-1995.

Today, Albania is an emerging developing country in Europe's most fractured area: the Balkans. With strong ties with Kosovo and Macedonia, the small republic left Enver Hoxha's communist regime behind in 1991 and opened up to a market economy and democracy. The country joined NATO in 2009 and became a candidate to join the European Union in 2014. Per-capita income above USD 10,000 and a Gini coefficient under 0.30 are behind the scarcity of homeless in the streets. An official unemployment rate of 17% does however not account for the large sectors of the population who remain working in the informal economy. Albania's population of about 3.2 million does not include the diaspora mostly established in Greece and Italy of circa one and a half million Albanians.

On Wednesday, September 16, 2015, I met with Mira in a cozy cafeteria called Shtpia e Miqve (House of Guests) nearby her apartment in central Tirana, where the lovely waitress Elena served us two macchiatos and a bottle of still water. Mira's trendy look coupled with her ease of use of technology, barely reflected the strength of the warrior she carried inside. The 69-year old Albanian knows very well why Albania is failing to fulfill the pledge every country owes to its elderly. Mira is direct and upfront, straightforward and diligent. She loses no time with subterfuges and employs shortcuts whenever possible.

Mira runs ASAG from her apartment with a very limited budget she covers out of personal expenses. Her younger son helps her with operations and she employs a staff of five extraordinary women who collaborate with her altruistically. She reminds me that Albania's leadership has forsaken the elderly, that the country's Government has failed to enact legislation compliant with The Madrid Plan, and that the meager pensions available to the elderly of between $100 and $200 monthly are barely sufficient to cover the minimum level of dignity. Many Albanians continue to work in the informal economy. This is mostly true when one walks through Tirana, the capital city of Albania, and observes the lack of homeless but the predominance of a batallion of street vendors who offer almost anything from food to books to clothing.

The World is proving incapable of addressing its greatest challenges. An ageing population is no longer limited to developed nations. Many developing countries particularly in the Balkans are facing the pressure of ageing. Albania's life expectancy will rise to 80 years by 2025 and 25% of the population will be considered older persons by the same year according to the United Nations. In addition there are 560.000 pensioners in the country (United Nations, 2011).

I met with Mira again on a sunny morning, September 23, 2015 at the third-floor cafeteria of Albania's best hotel Tirana International. From our privileged location we can contemplate the National Museum of History, the Central Bank and the Palace of Culture which hosts the Opera and the Central Library. Our second meeting takes place only one week before ASAG's annual international conference "Empowering the Elderly: Law As A Tool To Change" which celebrates the International Day of Older People on October 1st. As far back as 2008 Mira has been advocating for the importance of passing legislation in the interest of the elderly, quoting from her 2008 op-ed published on national press (Newspaper Albania, 25-January-2008):

It is, therefore, that the draft-law introduces for the first time the obligation of the Albanian government to allocate funds and resources for the involvement of the older persons in the social-cultural-political life of the country by promoting cultural activities, facilitating transportation, providing free medicaments, health care, psychological rehabilitation, etc.

World priorities as set and determined by a myopic leadership at the political and corporate levels are shifting funding towards areas that are not prioritary. I believe that civil society visionaries like Ermira Pirdeni are compensating our leadership's lack of vision, a leadership defining milestones and goals biased by the intrusion of business-oriented and for-profit agendas of pension funds and multinational corporations.

I acknowledge the validity of Mira's vision as would any rational individual before the presence of such extraordinary woman. I thank you Mira for teaching to me that it is the persons that matter most, that we all shall one day become elderly, that we owe what we are to the love and the caring nature of our mothers and fathers, that society cannot forget nor can it forsake the nature of today's most jeopardizing challenges. We must work together to eradicate the great evils of our time. I hereby encourage every reader to contact Mira and support her and her efforts as it is through the small tangible actions of everyday's individuals that we shall change the World, that it is step by step how we will one day reach the Moon and beyond. 

(The Huffington Post)

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