Meeting the Challenges of an Aging Society Kandy Friend-in–Need Society
The Kandy Friend-in-Need Society (KFINS), that rose from very humble beginnings in 1837, will celebrate today, Sunday March 12th, its 179thanniversary with the Minister of Social Empowerment and Welfare S. B. Dissanayaka as the chief guest.
It was founded by the then British Governor Sir Robert Wilmot Horton to provide shelter to destitute Tamil plantation workers. Under the Governor’s orders, the government had contributed 25 pounds sterling, Sir Robert himself had added 10 pounds from his personal funds, and an unnamed private philanthropist another 10 to establish a home for the destitute. A few women from the white plantation community had formed KFINS to run the facility and the Governor had agreed to become its patron.
The original KFINS home had been a thatched hut in Bogambara where the present Kandy hospital stands. It had been later moved to Mulgampola on the Peradeniya-Kandy Road where it still remains. Today, it is a comfortable facility that, together with a branch in Ampitiya, provides a home for 124 elderly men and women. One hundred of them who occupy dormitory style living quarters are looked after free of charge. The balance twenty four, who are from middle class backgrounds, occupy individual rooms and each pays an all inclusive fee of Rs 15,000 per month. There may be other such homes elsewhere in Sri Lanka. But this has proud historical antecedents that no other organization can match. More importantly, it serves as a model for a nation that is rapidly confronting the social and economic challenges of an aging society.
In 1946 only 5.5% (366,000) of the Sri Lankan population was over 60. By 1981, over a period of 35 years, the share had risen by 20% to 6.6% (980,000). Over the next 31 years to 2012, as the baby boomers began to reach retirement age, the share increased by 88% to 12.4% (2,525,000). The social and economic implications of a rapidly growing aging population are profound. In 1981 there were nearly nine adults of working age (15-59) for each over 60. Today the ratio is down to 5. To the extent that the elderly rely on state services such as healthcare and old age pensions, the working people have to pay taxes for the funding of such services.
Sri Lankan culture has been for children to look after their elderly parents. But demographics and globalization have joined forces to erode this tradition. Today, with smaller families, the burden of looking after elderly parents typically falls on one, two or, at most, three children. But especially in the case of the urban middle class, even that is true only if the children actually remain in the country. Very many migrate abroad. Either the elderly parents have to follow the children and often spend the rest of their lives in relative isolation in a foreign land, or remain in the country to fend for themselves. Even if the children send money from abroad, it is not an adequate substitute for the human bondage between parents and children that is weakened as a result of the separation. It is in such a context that KFINS serves as a model for the country.
The present writer spoke to a few residents who had nothing but praise for the home and its management. They appreciate the security, freedom and the opportunity for social interaction that the home provides. I expected some complaints because no organization is perfect. The one request that some of the women had was access to a kitchen. The residents are not allowed to use the main kitchen. Some would like to have a small kitchen to use if they want to cook something special. But the management is not keen on the idea because it could lead to conflict among residents. The residents are free to go out for meals and other social activities as they wish.
The funds for KFINS to meet recurrent expenses, that total about Rs 1.5m per month, come mainly from the interest earned from a trust fund built over the years and from donations from well wishers. KFINS has recently purchased a 4.5 acre block of land in Digana, about 15km from Kandy, for Rs 20 million to build an “Elders Village,” an innovative concept for Sri Lanka.
Sources of Success
KFINS owes its success to three main sources. The first is its financial independence and donations from the community. Had it been dependent on state funding, it is very unlikely that it would be the success that it is now. Secondly, good management. KFINS is incorporated under Sri Lanka law. The all-volunteer Board is dedicated to run a transparent and accountable operation. Annual audited accounts are available to the members of KFINS that currently stand at over 500. The members are mostly professionals, and business and civic leaders of Kandy. Thirdly, KFINS has been fortunate to have high caliber leadership at the top. For over two decades, Dental Surgeon late Dr. Prem Weerakoon chaired the Board. On his demise Dr. H B. Jayasinghe took over in 2003. Both have been very generous in assisting KFINS with their personal funds.
Taking care of the elderly, especially in the rapidly growing urban population of our country, will be a major challenge for Sri Lanka in the 21stcentury. KFINS offers one non-profit community-based model that is worthy of study and emulation.