Sunday, August 19, 2007

THAILAND'S AGING POPULATION

About the best thing that can be said about growing old is that it beats the alternative, but as SIRIPORN SACHAMUNEEWONGSE reports, there are a number of positive steps that can be taken to add value to the twilight years

When we are born, we're surrounded in the caring arms of our parents, who from then onwards watch out for us in whatever we do. They understand our cries, admire our laughter, find happiness in our smiles and are excited upon hearing our first words and seeing our first footsteps.

But as the years go by and we go off to school and then get caught up in our work and in our own lives and families, the older generations often fade into the background. These days, particularly with the influence of western values, it is not uncommon in Thailand, or other eastern countries for that matter, for the younger generations to strike out on their own, and after a time some may begin to ignore or even abandon their parents and grandparents. The question then follows as to how the seniors left at home are able to cope with a reality that would have been unthinkable in the not-too-distant past.

For example, I have a neighbour, an old woman, who lives alone in a classic Thai-styled wooden house. With regret, I must say that I doubt she goes anywhere, or has any visitors at all. I have spotted her only once in the past 7 years.

According to my own parents, in this neighbour's house once lived a happy family of five. She has lived through the death of her partner and now survives in solitaire, without the company of her children or grand-children, a gloomy fate for an Asian matriarch.

Older ladies in an exercise group line up at a local park for free sportswear. Social participation is an important requirement for active aging.

Generally speaking, old age has little fascination for either the young or old, certainly as far as the physical aspects go. The wrinkles, the lost muscle tone, the thinning and graying hair, in addition to lower immunity levels, frailty and loss of vigour, all define the final stages of life.

Yet, for better or worse, the statistics point to an aging population throughout most parts of the world, and this includes Thailand. There are around 7 million people aged 60 or above in this country at present, which amounts to 11% of the national population. It is projected that by 2020 this figure will rise to 10.8 million, at that time around 17% of the population.

In addition, there are also a number of indicators that point to significant changes in the traditional Thai family structure, which in the old days effortlessly and naturally accommodated older family members.

Considering the new trend of greater independence for the young, which tends to weaken the safety nets for the old, and the rising proportion of older people, it becomes critical for the government to take appropriate actions and implement policies to address the health and socio-economic needs of the elderly.

At the recent Seminar on the Social, Health and Economic Consequences of Population Aging in the Context of Changing Families, co-organised by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Unescap), the UN Population Fund and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, it was noted in the Thai delegation's statement that as a result of changing social values and economic conditions, the elderly are more likely to live alone at home, especially in rural areas where the younger generations frequently migrate to urban and industrial zones for the purpose of education and employment. It was also noted that Thai families are becoming smaller, which leaves less potential care givers for the elderly.

Supot Dantrakul, 84, (above) and Dr.Phichai Tovivich, 68, (below picture) are fine examples of active aging.

In such changing times, it may, therefore, be beneficial to gain more understanding of how to deal with the process of aging, and just as important, to recognise the concept of "active aging".

There is a difference between aging, and aging well, or active aging. Active aging, according to the Asia-Pacific Population Journal put out by Unescap, refers to the fulfillment of older persons in different domains, namely personal, family, social and professional.

The World Health Organisation defines active aging as the process of optimising opportunities for health, social participation and security in order to enhance the quality of life.

AGING WELL

An example of someone who is aging well is Supot Dantrakul. Born in Nakhon Si Thammarat province in 1923, the 84-year-old writer is recognised for his works on Thai politics, history and Buddhism. He now lives in Nonthaburi with one of his 6 children. He reflected that aging is a part of the natural process, and as such it is not something that should be feared or loathed, but accepted.

"Everything happening around us is correct within the laws of nature...One will be able to realise this only if they try to understand nature.

"Whatever has to happen will happen. Change is inevitable. Even illness and disease, it is all destined," he continued. "Some older persons fail to understand this law and therefore live through old age in distress."

Although he acknowledged that financial security is particularly important for the elderly, he suggested that if one understands the law of nature and accepts change willingly, there should be no problems at any age.

However, he noted, many older people become the victim of negative thinking, which is why so many are prone to psychological illnesses.

Dr.Phichai Tovivich

As for himself, he says that he just tries to be the best human being that he can. He is absolutely content with his achievements and contributions to society and continues to write even today.

He recognises that as people age the roles and duties as a child, husband/wife, parent and as a contributor to society by way of occupation are gradually fulfilled, but it is essential to consider that even in old age one can contribute to society. "If one is alive, there should be some purpose to it," he thought.

Another actively aging senior is Dr Phichai Tovivich - 69 and the president of the Centurion Club of Thailand. He is always involved in some sort of meaningful social activity, whether organising spiritual discourses under the Samnak Poo Sawan's Fellows Society or representing the World Citizen Association (Thailand). He is president of both organisations. He remarked that the age of 60, the present measure for retirement in Thailand, was not ideal. For many careers, for example that of a university professor, functionality and even excellence can persist for many years past the mandatory retirement age.

"One's retirement should be assessed based on the requirements of the profession as well as the health of the individual. It should not only be subject to one's age as there are many other aspects to be considered," said Dr Phichai, who at 69 remains perfectly fit, cheerful and active, ready to take up his various roles in society.

Like Supot, Dr Phichai is totally content with his life too. He did confess to one regret - that as a chemistry professor at Chulalongkorn for over 2 decades he may have given his students only superficial knowledge.

"Such knowledge is everywhere; it is accessible by 2 fingers via the Internet nowadays. It is wisdom that is more important - the key to help solve life's problems."

His practical and positive message for the elderly is that they should try to shift their focus to keeping the mind relaxed. Remarking that this is sometimes easier said than done, he suggested prayer, meditation and religious involvement as being very helpful.

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