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Ageing in the Caribbean and the rights of older persons

11 June 2015|Briefing note

Briefing note by ECLAC Caribbean Chief, Diane Quarless (June 2015)

The population of the Caribbean, like much of the rest of the world, is ageing. The ‘young societies’ of the past are giving way to communities where older persons form a much larger proportion of the total population. In the Caribbean,[1] the number of persons aged under 15 peaked in the early 1970s and has been falling steadily since; the number of people of working age (15-59) will peak in the early 2020s before falling; while the number of persons aged 60 and over is projected to rise for most of the rest of the century. At the turn of the millennium, persons aged under 15 made up 30 per cent of the population; persons of working age (15-59) made up 60 per cent; and older persons just 10 per cent of the population. By 2050, the corresponding figures will be 18 per cent, 56 per cent and 26 per cent. This ageing of the population is a direct product of what is called the demographic transition, that is, the transition from the high fertility/high mortality societies of the past to the low fertility/low mortality societies of the modern world. Population ageing should therefore be understood as a tremendous advancement in human development.

The age structure of the Caribbean population will change appreciably over the next 20 years. The generation of persons in their 40s and 50s, substantially outnumber the preceding generation (those now in their 60s and 70s). This is a result of the ‘baby booms’ experienced by several Caribbean countries around the 1960s. The ageing of this generation over the next 20 years will lead to a particularly rapid increase in the number of older persons: between 2015 and 2035, the number of persons aged 60 and over will increase from 1.1 million (13 per cent of the population) to 2 million (22 per cent). At the same time, low and falling fertility rates will continue to reduce the number of young people.

Population ageing is affecting, and will continue to affect, all Caribbean countries and territories. Among 16 for which data is available, population ageing is furthest advanced in the overseas territories of Aruba, Curaçao, Guadeloupe, Martinique and the United States Virgin Islands. In 2015, the old age dependency ratios in these territories (the number of persons aged 65 and over per 100 people aged 20 to 64) were already 20 or greater. In countries such as Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, the ratios range from 12 to 18. Ageing is least advanced in Guyana and Belize where the corresponding figures are less than 10. However, despite being found at somewhat different stages of this demographic process, these countries and territories will all see rapid population ageing over the coming decades. With the exception of the United States Virgin Islands, all will see their old age dependency ratio more than double over the next 30 years.

ECLAC advocates a rights-based approach to policies on ageing and older persons. At present, there is no single universal human rights treaty which specifically addresses the rights of older persons in the same way as exists, for example, in the case of women, children and persons with disabilities. Nevertheless, the applicability of human rights to older persons follows from the principle of universality, and many human rights established by United Nations treaties have a particular relevance to older persons. These include the right to social security; the right to an adequate standard of living; the right to the highest attainable standard of health; the right to work; the right to education; and the right to take part in cultural life.

Public policy on ageing and older persons must be oriented towards the full realization of these long-established human rights. Steps should be taken to improve the coverage and level of income protection in old age; and older persons should be guaranteed access to primary, secondary and tertiary health care services. The quality and availability of social care services need to be improved so that older persons can continue living independently with dignity and autonomy. Discriminatory laws, practices, attitudes and other barriers which prevent older persons from participating fully in economic, social and cultural life must be addressed so that societies can benefit from the positive contribution that older people can make.

ECLAC supports ongoing international efforts to protect the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of older persons. The Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing[1] continues to address the issue; the first Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons was appointed by the Human Rights Council in 2014; and negotiations continue over a Draft Inter-American Convention on the Human Rights of Older Persons. These are all important developments which can contribute to further advancing, clarifying and strengthening protection for the rights of older persons and promoting rights-based policy making.

Of course, fulfilment of the human rights of older persons, in the context of an ageing population, will have major implications for public expenditure. Research based on the National Transfer Accounts framework suggests that public funding of pensions and health care services will have to increase significantly as a share of GDP.[2] Based on an analysis of ten Latin American countries and fifteen European Union countries (EU-15), it is projected that population ageing and economic growth will see spending on public health care services rise by 3.4 (Latin America) and 3.2 (EU-15) percentage shares of GDP between 2005 and 2050. So for example, a country spending 3.5 per cent of GDP on public health services in 2005 would, it is projected, be spending around 7 per cent of GDP on health care by 2050. The corresponding increases in public expenditure on pensions were 1.5 (Latin America) and 2.3 (EU-15) percentage shares of GDP. It is reasonable to assume that similar increases will be required in Caribbean countries.


[1] Established by United Nations General Assembly resolution 65/182 in December 2010.

[2] Miller, Tim (2012), “Population Aging in Latin America and the Caribbean: A New Era” presentation at the Canadian Economics Association meeting, Calgary, Canada, June.


[1] Here the Caribbean refers to Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Curaçao, Dominica; Grenada, Guadeloupe, Guyana, Jamaica, Martinique, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Sint Maarten, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, United States Virgin Islands.