Pension Tension: Social Pension Program in Los Baños

by Clinton C. Ronquillo and Paoloregel B. Samonte

At first glance, Lola Basyon would pass for a socialite grandma who seems to live her old life in lavishness; attending parties for the golden-aged elites at night, tending her rose garden in the morning, spending her afternoons in the sweetness of tango music in her ballroom dancing classes. With her pink nail polish, gold necklace, dangling pearl earrings and a lump of thin, brownish hair, her overall aura seemed to speak of a groovy grandma spending the remaining days of her life in the comforts of a luxurious home. Except she isn’t. Except we found her somewhere else.

Lola Basyon, or Mrs. Encarnacion Bonaceli, 81, was in the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) Los Baños Chapter that Friday noon, asking for few pennies to ease her cough. She is definitely not the well-off grandma we mistook her for. However, she is also not begging for money in the office. Lola Basyon is just one of the few senior citizens in the town who are beneficiaries of the Social Pension Program (SPP) under the Pantawid Pamilya Program (PPP) of the DSWD.

Social Pension Program Defined

The Social Pension Program, which Lola Basyon is part of, is provided under the Republic Act (RA 9994) or the Expanded Senior Citizens Act of 2010. The said program aims to support the basic needs of poor Filipino senior citizens aged 77 or above who are “frail, sickly, disabled, without any regular source of income and/or support from any member of the family, and not receiving other pension benefits from government and private agencies.”

DSWD launched the program in 2011 by distributing 870 million pesos amount of social pension to about 145,000 senior citizens nationwide. In 2012, the budget for the SPP skyrocketed from 870 million to 1.23 billion, with the number of beneficiaries also increasing from an estimated 145,000 to 185,000, according to DSWD.

The beneficiaries across the country are selected through the National Household Targeting System for Poverty Reduction (NHTS-PR) of DSWD. Social workers in barangay levels conduct household surveys and submit them to the central office of DSWD for reassessment. Once the final list of beneficiaries is released, they then visit the fortunate beneficiaries and inform them about the results and pay-out scheme.

Luckily, Lola Basyon was one of the nearly 150,000 beneficiaries in 2011 who receive 1,500 pesos every three months.

Half-hearted Gratitude

Lola Basyon said that she is somehow thankful for the social pension program of the government.

Pagkatanggap ko ng pensyon, bumibili ako agad ng gatas, asukal, tatlong kilong bigas. Basta wanport ng wanport  (Upon receiving the pension money, I immediately go to the store and buy milk, sugar and three kilograms of rice. I always buy in quarters),” she said.

However, she admitted that the pension, in addition to what her sons contribute from their little income, has proven to be inadequate for them to meet their daily needs.

Furthermore, she said that the pension is handed to them irregularly. In these instances, Lola Basyon would charge her purchase in the sari-sari store to the long list of her debts.

Hindi naman puwedeng hindi kami kumain (We cannot afford not to eat)”, she added.

Neglected Medical Needs

Most of the beneficiaries of the pension are afflicted with several sicknesses such as hypertension, diabetes, and rheumatism; while others are already bedridden and paralyzed, according to Mrs. Luzviminda Alvarez, social worker from Municipal Welfare and Social Development Office (MSWDO).

In Lola Basyons’ case, the aim of the pension program to financially assist senior citizens in their health concerns is not adequately fulfilled. The sparse amount of money she receives is even insufficient for their daily food needs.

Of the 1,500 pesos Lola Basyon receives every three months, 1,200 pesos is allotted for purchasing food such as rice, canned goods, coffee and sugar. The remaining 300 pesos is used for paying debts in the sari-sari store and should there be anything still left from the pension, for buying cough medicine,

Basta ang importante na lang ay may makain tatlong beses sa isang araw. Basta may bigas lang (What is important is to have something to eat three times a day. As long as there is rice),” she said.

Every mother in a family thinks the same. This is true for Lola Basyon, who has to sacrifice buying maintenance drugs for her recurring dry cough and hyperacidity just so her family could eat. Most of the time, she visits the health center and the office of Municipal Social and Welfare Development (MSWD), hoping for someone to lend her money. Thanks to her being friendly and jolly, the social workers on duty sometimes give money for her medication.

But the social workers cannot always provide for her. In times of extreme need for treatment and medicines, Lola Basyon turns to free medical check-ups administered by the government.

“Kapag may libreng gamutan, eh punta naman ako kasi siyempre mamimigay sila ng libreng gamot (I go to medical missions whenever there is one because they give away free drugs),” Aling Basyon shared.

Lola Basyon is just one of the million other Filipinos who entirely depend on government programs for their medical needs. While social pension gives her the prerogative to spend the money on things she wants, she tends to discount her medical needs so that her family would eat thrice a day. This is a clear manifestation that the social pension that she receives is not enough to cover her basic needs, including her health necessity.

Widening Reach

SPP remains to be a ray of hope for Lola Basyon and other senior citizen-beneficiaries in the municipality of Los Banos. Mrs. Alvarez, who handles the program for almost two years now, can attest to this.

Kung magiging materialistic ka, mawawala agad yang pera pero sa kanilang mahihirap, malaking tulong ‘yun (If you are going to be materialistic, the money could be spent quickly.  But for the poor, it is a huge help),” she said.

Despite the gratitude of the beneficiaries, the SPP program implementers in Los Banos are still aiming for better sustenance and services. But unfortunately, the improvement of the quality of the program is not in their hands. The most they could do is to appeal for an increase in the number of beneficiaries, which they are working on to. According to Mrs. Alvarez, they requested more slots to be given to other senior citizens.

Marami kasing lumalapit sa aming mga senior citizens at nagtatanong kung pwede daw ba silang magpension din (There are many senior citizens who are coming to us and asking if they can get pension, too), Mrs. Alvarez said.

DSWD responded to this by allowing barangay officials to recommend needy senior citizens in their respective barangays as potential beneficiaries of the program. Then, MSWDO validated the recommendation by conducting household visits. They made a request July last year, which was approved four months after. From 22 beneficiaries, there are currently 48 Los Banos senior citizens who benefit from the social pension program. Mrs. Alvarez added that they have also waitlisted senior citizens who will be given the slots if ever a beneficiary dies. A slot which Lola Basyon, still living, clings on to.

Later Life Hopes

Lola Basyon, 81, is just one of the many faces of the SPP senior citizen-beneficiaries who still wish for better sustenance and more privileges from the government. And even with her pink nail polish, alluring golden necklace and dangling earrings, a lump of thin, brownish hair, gleaming white smile and an over-all aura of a fabulous grandma, she still cannot mask the weariness emanating from her deep black eyes; the misery brought about by poverty, by curable yet untreated sickness, by lack of food.

Lola Basyon with her son, the ‘Jose Rizal’ of Laguna.

Lola Basyon admits she may not get to live through a better life. But as the remaining years of her being makes its way to the end, her hopes for a better quality Social Pension Program for her and other future beneficiaries continues.

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