Sampao Jantharun, 78, assists Somjit Phuthasiri, 90, in a wheelchair as they head to their residence at Wellness Nursing Home Centre in Ayutthaya, Thailand.
The duty of caring for elderly relatives is one shared by people throughout the world, not least those in Southeast Asia. However, according to the Health Insurance System Research Office, a state agency led by Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health, Thais spend as much as a third of their household incomes – at least $217 per month, on average – on tending to ageing relatives.
What’s more, this economic responsibility is only set to worsen, because Thailand’s working-age population is expected to decline this decade – the only country in the region that will experience such a generational shift, making it the future ‘old man’ of Southeast Asia.
The UN estimates that the number of Thais aged between 15 and 64 will peak next year, but then dwindle afterwards. In 2010, just 9% of the population was above 65 years old – by 2030, this will rise to almost 20%.
According to a recent Voice of America report, almost a quarter of Thais do not possess a pension or other savings for retirement. “It is going to be a burden on the younger generation,” Sutayut Osornprasop, a human development specialist at the World Bank, told the broadcaster.
In response, the Thai government has floated a number of possible solutions in recent years, including raising the age of retirement so that Thais would have to work for longer.
But a number of experts have pointed to Singapore as a guiding example for the Kingdom. The city-state’s affliction of an ageing population and low birth rates became apparent decades ago, but Singapore rallied against the side effects by increasing migration and developing a social security system that provides pension funds and subsidised healthcare.
Thailand also has universal healthcare coverage, introduced in 2002, yet a recent World Bank report found many old people were unable to access such services, either because of geography or finances. “Once the elderly people become dependent and need others to bring them to health facilities, the frequency of using services at health facilities generally drops,” the report stated, adding this was particularly pronounced among the rural poor.
The same report claimed that unless healthcare gaps for the elderly are improved in Thailand the consequences of an ageing population will be acute.