Jan 3, 2017

The need for a strong ageing support system

An increasingly elderly population challenges not only our nation’s economy but most importantly, our humanity.

THE advent of the new calendar year inevitably adds to one’s age. Those in the middle-aged group are acutely aware that when God has let them live this long, they are advancing towards old age, barring any unforeseen circumstances along the way.

Old age is usually associated with several physical and mental dysfunctions. Physically, the elderly may be compromised in strength, even though they are in good health. Hearing and sight problems may set in while others may have mental issues like Alzheimer’s, Empty Nest syndrome, depression and others.

According to Nikmat and Almashoor, about 50,000 suffered from Alzheimer’s in Malaysia in 2012.
Malaysia is fast joining the global ageing population. According to the United Nations, by 2030, those aged 60 years and above will reach 15% of the population. Thus, we need to be prepared in terms of facilities, development planning, economy and a social support system.

In countries like Japan, Italy, Greece, Germany, Britain and others, the elderly already make up more than 15% of the population. These developed nations have a great ageing support system.
Germany, for example, has a long-term care insurance (LTCI) system which is financed both by the public and private sectors. For the public LTCI system, a mandatory percentage of payroll tax is shared by employer and employee, according to certain stipulations.

The long-term care insurance for the elderly in Japan, on the other hand, is differentiated from medical insurance so it may cover and collect premiums from both retiree and employee. The insurer must be the state or a public corporation that has the authority to ensure all targeted people participate in the scheme.

In Malaysia, several schemes for the elderly are available to cater to different needs. The Bantuan Orang Tua scheme for example, provides RM300 cash per month to the elderly without income in the community, while Rumah Kenanga accommodates the elderly with neither heirs nor income but who are able to manage themselves.

Those without both heirs and income, and who are bedridden as well, will be placed at Rumah Ehsan. The three schemes come under the Department of Social Welfare which has other schemes or help available under public or private agencies.

The shared values from the three different countries on the ageing support system practised is that they try as much as possible to place the elderly among their own family members. No one should ever be separated from their own family without any valid reason, especially children and elderly parents.

However, nowadays other socio-economic issues lead the family members, especially the children, to abandon their old parents. Among them are poverty, lack of shelter and/or time, bad childhood experiences and others.

Today, the younger generation need to face challenges that they cannot overcome by themselves. For example, years of income stagnation in addition to higher cost of living, inappropriate shelter like a one- or two-bedroom home due to escalating house prices, double shifts or dual careers to sustain themselves and their children, and many more.

Despite the challenges, children must be responsible in caring for their elderly parents, even when the challenges they encounter may affect their treatment of their parents.

In some cases, the children, as caregivers to elderly parents, suffer mental depression and financial difficulties.

Research by Prof Dr Brooke Hallowell of the University of Ohio found that 80% of dementia caregivers have very high stress levels. Without proper help, the children may end up abandoning their own parents.

Such an act without valid reason is not only against religion, but also against the norm and humanity.
In Islam, such mistreatment is considered derhaka (disobeying one’s parent) and as inscribed in a Malay fable, Tanggang, the name of the son whose mistreatment of his mother after marrying a princess and becoming rich turned him into stone as punishment.

Indeed, besides providing a direct support system to the elderly, we must also address how to help the young generation to support their own parents. We need to preserve family values even though we live in a modern world nowadays. This can be done by focusing on issues that influence the elderly to ask for a non-family support system.

For example, the cost of living needs to be cut down by appropriate intervention in the economy. All stages of income, especially that of the middle-class, need to be revised.

At present, the minimum wage policy has been implemented. The policy reduces the wage gap between those of the middle-income and the lower-income, but differences in terms of position, skill, job scope, talent and experience still create a huge gap.

Several initiatives that encourage the young to help take care of their elderly parents can be implemented. For example, a new housing scheme can be established for those who care for and take in their own parents to live with them, especially in big cities like Kuala Lumpur, Johor Baru and Penang.

In addition, awareness campaigns on “kindness towards family members” may be created to assist those who suffered from family dysfunctions during childhood and grew up holding grudges towards their own parents. They can be helped by providing counselling, while programmes can be conducted to help young parents raise children amid modern challenges.

As the fertility rate keeps declining and life expectancy keeps increasing, the ageing population will continue to increase relatively. Indeed, the ageing population matters since it challenges the nation’s economy, social support system and most importantly, it challenges our humanity.

The elderly should be treated with wisdom, love and mercy, especially among their own family members. In Islam, parents are ranked highly and the responsibility of taking care of them rests on the children, especially when the parents reach old age and become infirm.

Neither a little “ah” nor harsh words can be uttered to them, but only good words can be used to address them (the Quran,17:23).

Nur Syahidah Abdul Jalil is a research officer with Ikim’s Centre for Economics and Social Studies. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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