The Ageing Game

Posted: 4 September 2000

Hedi is 81. Every morning he's shaved in the barber's shop of the old people's home in Tunisia where he lives. He's visited daily by the home's director, and sometimes even by Tunisia's President Ben Ali, who has made it obligatory for working people to give their parents a pension, and even instituted an annual Old People's Day to honour the elderly publicly.

Hedi has no complaints. He is - he boasts in Relative Values, one of four films in TVE's new series made to illustrate the UN Population Fund (UNFPA)'s State of World Population Report 1998 - treated like a prince.

But Hedi is the exception in Tunisia today - and the old people's home where he lives is the only one in the capital city, Tunis. There are 800,000 old people in the whole country, but only one in a 1,000 lives in a home.

In Tunisia, the family is still the bedrock of society, and the vast majority of the country's old people are unquestioningly looked after by their children or relatives who treasure and respect them as a source of wisdom and experience. The state only steps in to take over responsibility for the rare individuals who have no family to look after them.

But Tunisia is a tiny country, with a population of just 9 million - and pressures on the economy, together with the growing influence today of migration, tourism and foreign media, threaten to destabilise this family-centred culture as they force more and more Tunisians to migrate to find work abroad. Interviewing some of these migrants in the streets of Paris where many have congregated to create a new, 'little Tunis', director Charlotte Metcalf questions how long Tunisia's extended family structure can withstand outside forces?

It's a dilemma more and more countries are having to face up to. The 1998 State of World Population Report shows there are now over 560 million people aged 60 and over in the world, and in parts of Europe, North America and Japan, the proportion of older people in the population is rising faster than any other group.

These soaring numbers of the old and very old are part of a new demographic phenomenon - what the report calls the 'new generations' - and they are paralleled by the coming of age of the largest generation of young people between 15 and 24 ever, as a result of high fertility rates in the past.old woman© TVEThe four short films in TVE's The Ageing Game look at the impact of these 'new generations' of old and young people on families and social services in four different countries and cultures - in Japan, Nigeria and India, as well as through Hedi's story in Tunisia. They also explore what UNFPA calls the 'implicit contract' that has always before existed between the generations - the universally understood code whereby older generations raise, nurture and educate the next generation to become responsible citizens and parents and, in their turn, provide and care for them in their old age.

The series is introduced by a short, 7 1/2-minute film that sets out some of the problems and challenges these new populations of 'young' and 'old' people present for governments, policy-makers and the international community.

Each film in the series explores a different aspect of the new demographic phenomenon. Relative Values looks at the extended family structure still intact in Tunisia - where the fast track to paradise is said to come through the love and devotion you show your mother - but for how much longer?

A Silver Generation focuses on Japan, which has the highest number of old people in any industrialised country, and where the problems of caring for increasing numbers of old people are compounded by a drastically falling birth rate and the growing demand of young women to choose if and when they want to get married.

Alhaji's Wives is filmed in northern Nigeria where the practice of polygamy, endorsed by local religious leaders, is accompanied by a widespread denial of women's reproductive rights leading to high rates of child and maternal mortality, unsustainably large families - and lives of ignorance, misery and resentment for many of the women married off to older men in their teens.

The final film in the series, Dance Within by Indian director Manjira Datta, explores the increasing effect of globalisation on the economy in India, contributing to the breakdown of the extended family system that once automatically provided for parents and relatives in their old age. India, the UNFPA report claims, will have 75 million old people - more than any other country in the world - by the year 2001.

Reviewer: Jenny Richards

All four films in The Ageing Game are available to TV stations, as well as on VHS cassette for non-broadcast, educational use for US$30 (£20). Contact: Cath Hall or Lyndsey Cockwell, TVE, Distribution Office, Prince Albert Road, London NW1 4RZ, UK. Tel: +44 (0)20 7586 5526; Fax: +44 (0)20 7586 4866. Email