Published: 11/14/2015 at 01:37 AM
newspaper section: News

Nurturing and learning from the elderly

Elderly people living at Bang Khae Home celebrate the its 56th anniversary. Sukum Preechapanich


          The population of Thailand is rapidly ageing. In 1960, those aged 60 years and over represented about 5% of thetotal population; now the same age group accounts for approximately 15% of the national population. In numerical terms, this means an increase in the retirement age population from 1.5 million to 10 million since 1960.

          The increase in the retirement age population is a result of a rapid decline in the fertility rate and an increase in longevity, which makes Thailand the second ""oldest"" country in Asean, after Singapore. However, because of therapidity of the ageing of Thais, the proportion of the over-60 population will grow even more. According to a projection by the National Economic and Social Development Board, by the year 2030 about 25% (17.8 million) of the population will be past the mandatory retirement age.

          As a response, past governments have produced two national plans for the elderly with some concrete results. Now all elderly are entitled to free medical services from universal health care, basic social services as well and nominal living allowances are provided for indigent elderly in rural areas.

          However, when reviewing the government policies and programmes, it is apparent that all policy actions viewthe elderly as society's dependents. There has been a strong emphasis on the welfare mindset, viewing older people as a problem, not an asset.

          Data from national surveying indicates that the majority of older people still want to work and earn an income to support themselves. As a policy response to the desire of these people to actively participate in economically gainful activities, the government of Thailand should increase the mandatory retirement age from 60 to 65 years, similar to in Singapore and other ageing countries. This policy will re-enable over 4% of the population to increase the government's tax revenues and improve GDP growth for the country.

          We recently conducted research which found that intergenerational support remains intact and is relatively unchanged over the years. Property and other assets are passed from parent to child. Those who are the children ofthe older people also intend to bequeath their assets to their own children. Younger people do expect to return thebeneficence of their ageing parents for giving them life and raising them.

          Conforming to this normative expectation, many children provide monetary support to their parents. Although fewer children now provide monetary support, the amount of assistance given to parents has increased over time. Older people who frequently interact and regularly dine with their children are happier than those who live alone or only with their spouses. All of these indicate that Thailand should give greater priority to intergenerational solidarity by formulating new supportive policies to strengthen activities that maintain or promote the family and confirm the hypothesis that family is still the primary social institution and the key social safety net for older people in Thailand.

          Since local governments are able to stay in touch with people in their constituency, they can conceivably function as a large extended family. Currently they are mandated by the central government to serve as the distributors of monthly living allowances for these older ""family"" members. Out of intrinsic interest in the well-being of their older members, many are doing more than just handing out a meagre amount of cash. In addition, they are moving toward more constructive and creative approaches such as providing handicrafts or clothweaving training in combination with income-generation activities that sell the products from the training courses.

          Multiple local governments have attempted to increase the computer literacy of the elderly through short-course programmes. Computer training is the most popular course for the elderly in three provinces we studied.

          Reasoning that no one is too old to learn and that an indirect benefit of learning may be to reduce the chance of developing Alzheimer's or depression among older people, several local administration organisations are now running schools for their older people.

          In Phichit province, for example, where older people account for 17.4% of its population, the chief executive officer of the Provincial Administration Organisation has provided budgeting support to all local governments in theprovince since 2013 to promote intergenerational solidarity with the goal to give people in the province a sense of well-being.

          The plan now is to create a Senior College to bring people from all three generations together to learn from theexperiences of each other. The older people and the younger generations will be both learners and teachers at thecollege. The subjects of instruction include languages, arts and cultural handicrafts, agriculture and computer literacy.

          These lifelong learning programmes for the elderly have received little attention from the central government.

          Initiatives like the Senior College will provide scaffolding for members of society to develop intergenerational solidarity, and, just like a big family, will protect and promote happiness in the older population. While central government schemes like the National Savings Fund provide a cash-based safety net, models like those in Phichit demonstrate the often-overlooked local government initiatives that recognise the valuable experience and potential ofthe elderly.

          Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, Phd, is founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen