Published: 8/05/2010 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: News
Among the five points in Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's road map to national reconciliation is a proposal to build an expanded social welfare system for the poor. This is long overdue, and one of the priorities should be the creation of an effective safety net for the growing numbers of elderly.
Many are being left to fend for themselves as the traditional family unit breaks apart, creating a social crisis that must be dealt with. This is just one aspect of the planned reforms to end social injustice but it is an important one. Caring for the elderly has long been one of the great filial obligations of Thai society. It is a tradition that has made the "golden years" a time of joy for many. But as the times change, so do attitudes towards marriage and family, backed by a growing desire for greater individualism.
As the extended family disintegrates, many of the aged are being forced to seek help elsewhere and the filial piety that has long been a core value of society throughout Asia melts away, to be replaced by pricy care homes and support groups. Doctors responsible for mental health have linked this trend to increases in anxiety, depression and even suicide.
Concern over the apparent deterioration in standards of care for the aged led to the convening of a recent conference in Singapore. The conclusions were generally positive and showed that some governments have begun to take action. For example, Malaysia gives priority housing to adults who have their parents living with them. Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia offer tax breaks for relatives caring for elderly family members.
China is particularly badly off because the one-child policy has reduced the number of traditional care-givers and residential homes and hospitals are often full. Most adult children, tied down with work and their own families, do not have the time or energy to properly care for their parents. While the situation here is better, the long-term outlook is cause for concern.
As a direct result of family planning policy, Thai population growth rates have plummeted since 1975 and demographers say grandparents have gone from having as many as 66 potential care-givers to as few as five. The spectre of zero growth looms and that will lead to a society in which the old outnumber the young.
Private or state institutional care or residential homes are commonplace in the West but are not as popular here. They meet resistance because of the restrictions they place on freedom, individuality and lifestyle and, of course, the splitting up of families. In a traditional home environment, 3 to 5 generations often lived together under the same roof and many still do. But we must plan ahead and provide economical community-based elderly service centres to help in tasks such as cleaning, cooking and shopping and providing basic health care.
The gradual shift from an agricultural economy to one dominated by industry and services has had a profound effect on rural life and sparked a migration to the cities, where the work is. With better medical care, people are living longer and each successive generation is smaller than the last. That means there are fewer young people to enter the work force and pay taxes to support retirees. Although the process is a gradual one, planning does need to be done now.
The older generation will need to retire later, but also acquire skills that employers need. Malaysia provides job re-training and placement. The Philippines and Singapore offer employers of older people incentives in the form of tax deductions. Our government needs to be just as proactive.