Making allowances for the elderly

An ageing population means a serious overhaul must be made to Thailand’s inadequate pension system

Every second, two people celebrate their 60th birthday somewhere across the globe. That’s a total of nearly 63 million 60th birthdays a year. Once people reach this significant milestone, they have the… 

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Senior citizens are making Thai sweets at a workshop run by The Foundation For Older Person's Development.

By 2050, the number of citizens aged 60 and over is expected to total 2 billion, which will account for 22% of the global population.

This increase in 21st century life longevity, with 33 countries boasting a life expectancy of over 80, is undoubtedly a victory for mankind.

However, it also begs the question as to how the infrastructure of different countries will cope, and how, as a global society, we will deal with this growing community that is often perceived as a burden or even ignored completely.

In order to create a viable, strong society with an ageing population, countries need to provide their ageing citizens with the essentials needed for them to age with dignity and with everything they need. Access to quality health care, a good standard of living and income security are among the necessities that can make the final years of life better.

Thailand is no exception in experiencing a significant increase in proportion of an ageing population. It ranks 36th in the Global Age Watch Index 2014, the only global index to measure the social and economic well-being of older people.

In 2014, the population of old people in Thailand was 9.52 million people, which accounts for 14% of the total population. It is estimated that, by 2017, the population of the elderly will be the same as the population of children. By 2040, the country will see the number of old people double from the current number to more than 20 million people.

As people age, one of the biggest challenges facing them are economic problems.

Ever since the Act on the Elderly was introduced in 2003, Thailand has seen its governments experiment with various solutions to tackle poverty faced by the destitute elderly.

The government initially introduced a policy to provide subsistence allowance allocations, but only underprivileged old people were eligible. In 2009, the policy was adjusted to cover everybody over 60.

Again, as of 2011, the policy was changed to offer varying amounts, with those over 60 given 600 baht, over 70 given 700 baht and so on. These amounts clearly aren’t sufficient to cover living expenses for those from low and middle income families.

Most importantly, in Thailand, these subsistence allowance policies occupy a rather precarious position and could theoretically be withdrawn by one of country’s ever-changing governments, as it is not technically a law.

The Foundation For Older Person’s Development (FOPDEV), is a non-profit and non-government organisation committed to working with and for the disadvantaged and vulnerable elderly in Thailand. It was established in 1997 and has worked on many projects with its affiliate Help-Age International. The NGO has also conducted a number of studies on the elderly in Thailand, which show that 53% of old people in Thailand are below the poverty line, 27% have no income, and 43% of old people are solely dependent on using the allowance for a living.

“I wanted the country to have its own local NGO to take care of its own old people,” said Sawang Kaewkantha, FOPDEV’s executive director who was an officer at HelpAge before FOPDEV was founded. “I was poor before so I was inspired to help them.”

FOPDEV and HelpAge International have undertaken a series of projects over the years, by recruiting volunteers to help the elderly who were too feeble to take care of themselves and work with the elderly who were shunned by society because they had Aids. They have also introduced various training programmes, including preparing the elderly for national disasters, and also teaching them their rights and what they are entitled to.

Over the years, various organisations have been working alongside different networks set up by old people across the country to overhaul the allowance system. The first step,many believe, is to change the name of the system itself.

“An allowance system sounds like old people are a burden and are getting a handout, but the social security pension system sounds more like a right, which is what it is,” said Chanyuth Tepa, FOPDEV’s project manager.

It has been suggested that a minimum of 2,422 baht should be given to Thailand’s elderly, an amount that is enough to bail the old people of Thailand out of the “poverty jail”.

“The money old people get from the government is not enough given the current economy,” said Chanyuth. “Old people today were once taxpayers who paid tax to the country their whole lives. They were part of contributing to the country. They deserve better benefits from their government.”

But so far the process of putting the social pension system into practice has proven somewhat difficult, partly due to the political unrest and changing governments that has numbed the country for years.

Introducing such a social system is estimated to cost billions. Since the government has yet to pay attention to the requests to improve income security for the elderly and given that it is likely to be a long road before it actually happens, FOPDEV and HelpAge decided to start helping without them.

In 2013, they piloted their latest project, funded by the European Union, to give money to 30 villages in three provinces, located in the northern region including Mae Hong Son,Chiang Mai and Lamphun.

Each of the villages in the programme was given 35,000 baht to introduce projects that invited elderly villagers to take part. One project sees its villagers get together three days a week to craft candles to sell. The organisation hopes that these villages will set good examples for other villages around the country to follow.

“In the past, rural old villagers would rarely be able to leave their houses,” said Janfong Mahamai, the 75 year-old female vice-president of the Banthi district’s old people association in Lamphun.

“Now, not only do they have income from these projects, but their physical and emotional well-being is also better.”

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