Twilight fears

Cambodia’s first retirement home is an indicator of a looming crisis facing Southeast Asia

Irwin Loy
June 14, 2013
Twilight fears
Looking forward: Pring Am turned to begging on the main street of her village when her adult son could no longer afford to care for her. Photo by Irwin Loy

When Pring Am’s adult son could no longer afford to support her, the 67-year-old grandmother returned to a tiny rural village in Prey Veng province, near where she grew up. Left with no family to rely on and no land of her own, Am felt compelled to do something she had never considered since the dark days of the Khmer Rouge: she started begging for food.

“I know it’s not good for me to ask for food with nothing to give in return,” Am says, twisting her wrinkled hands over her lap. “But I didn’t have a choice.”

This small village was linked to the national power grid for the first time only in the last year. But the progress hasn’t reached everyone.

Kim Vuthy was shocked when he started seeing elders like Pring Am begging on the main road of his hometown. Cham Bak was never a wealthy village, but he thought it deplorable that so many of his elders were living hand-to-mouth existences. The 30-year-old decided he wanted to do something about it, so he opened the doors of what he believes is the first retirement home in the country. Pring Am was the first resident.

“Normally, when our parents or grandparents get older, we should take care of them,” Vuthy says. “But we have seen this change a lot recently. More people, they seem to not take care of their parents or grandparents properly.”

Vuthy’s retirement home is a modest affair – a few simple rooms behind his parents’ family home, sparsely furnished with bamboo beds, mosquito nets and flickering solar-powered lamps. It is run largely on intermittent donations and volunteer time. But in a society where the idea of sending one’s elders away to be cared for by strangers goes against the grain, the very existence of a retirement home for destitute seniors is an early symptom of a looming dilemma for policy-makers: the rapid ageing of the population.

It is a global trend. As fertility rates drop and health improvements boost life expectancy, countries are seeing the average age of their populations soar. In many nations across Asia, the speed of this transformation is unparalleled.

There are already more than 170 million elderly people living in China. While people older than 60 currently make up about 13% of China’s population, that could more than double within a generation, according to statistics from the United Nations Population Division.

By 2050, this age group could represent almost one-third of the population in Vietnam; at the moment, it accounts for less than 10%. Across Asia, governments will be straining to deal with a population transformation that will have evolved at an extraordinary pace.

“It’s unprecedented in human history,” says Zachary Zimmer, a demographer and sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco. “The transformations that have occurred over a couple of hundred years in the developed part of the world have occurred over a generation in East Asia and Southeast Asia. It has occurred over 30 or 40 years or even a shorter period of time.”

Ageing is a societal issue, but also one with major economic implications. As populations get older, the proportion of working-age adults able to support their elders – and contribute tax dollars to public services – will shrink.

In China, there are about nine working-age people between the ages of 16 and 64 for every person older than 65, according to the UN. Projections suggest this will fall to only three by 2050.

Forty years from now in Singapore, there could be only two working-age adults for every senior – 25% of the current ratio.

Asia’s relatively young labour force has fuelled huge economic gains over the last half-century. But with no policy response to this demographic shift, one of its greatest strengths could become an economic burden within a generation.

Therefore, reactions to the ageing phenomenon must occur as rapidly as populations are maturing, Zimmer says. That could involve policies encouraging older people to work longer, past traditional retirement ages, or approaches that make it easier for younger people to take care of their elders.

“We tend to view older people as kind of an unproductive part of the population and that’s fine when they’re a small percentage,” Zimmer says. “But when they become a very large percentage, this view of elderly people has to change. And that’s where policy comes into play. How are the older people going to be supported by a diminishing labour force? How are they going to be supported by smaller families?”

The problem is compounded in developing countries, where resources are stretched thin and the social safety net may not be wide enough for everyone who needs it.

“It’s more and more difficult for adult children to take care of their older parents,” says Annie Nut, country director in Cambodia for the NGO HelpAge International. “If the family has difficulty ensuring those needs, what can we do to support the family? What kind of other responses and mechanisms are there?”

Nut advocates for the creation of Older People’s Associations, which are run as a type of co-op for the elderly, where membership dues can be pooled and directed toward small loans or grants, or tools like rice banks to supplement food supplies. It may be an interim measure in the absence of full government services, but Nut says this village-level safety net can work. The Cambodian government has adopted the model and there are now more than 300 in communities across the country.

In a sense, Cambodia has time to watch what neighbouring countries are doing, and choose the options that work best.

Decades of conflict and a post-war baby boom mean Cambodia is still one of the youngest countries in a rapidly greying region. The adult survivors of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime have become the elders of today. Within 20 years, the proportion of elderly people in Cambodia will start to more closely resemble its already ageing neighbours.

Still, the change that is sweeping through the region can already be seen in parts of rural Cambodia, like Pring Am’s village outside Phnom Penh.

A paved highway has cut the once lengthy journey to the capital down to a couple of hours, but it also pulls away some of its most productive residents.

According to research from Cambodia’s Ministry of Planning, a survey of village leaders suggested that, on average, 4% of villagers had left their rural homes in the previous year. More than nine out of every ten villages had experienced a population decrease; in dozens of villages surveyed, more than 10% of the population had left.

Like Pring Am’s son, younger people are moving toward the cities in search of work and leaving their elderly relatives behind, prematurely greying the country’s rural communities.

For her part, Am says she’s happy to now have a roof over her head and food to eat, but she knows there are others like her who aren’t as fortunate.

“When I was young,” Am says, “we took better care of our elders. The young generation these days, not all of them do.”

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