Available Support Networks for a Greying Population
Jul 07, 2015

By the year 2050, the number of aged will triple compared to the number in 2010. In fact, the United National Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that by 2050, the number of aged 60 and older will rise to around 22 per cent. According to BBC News, “How an Ageing Population will change the World,” Japan, South Korea and China are the most worried about the demographic impact of supporting the greying population. Currently, one in nine Singaporean is 65 years old and above. This ratio becomes one in five come year 2030, which works out to be approximately 900,000 seniors, twice the 440,000 seniors we have this year. On one hand, greater longevity is a happy problem because increased lifespan affirms the success of health care policies, the efficacy of medical science and the benefits of improved dietary choices, which allow people to enjoy more years of life. On the other hand, old age comes with its fair share of challenges, which both the individual and the society at large have to grapple with. Like the Greek mortal Tithonus who asked the Gods to grant him immortality but forgot to state that he also wants eternal youth, prolonged lives without corresponding youth have economic and social implications which the larger society needs to manage.

Economic Realities

Come 2030, two Singaporean adults will support one elderly person. More working adults will feel mounting social and economic pressures to support both their children and their elderly parents. At the macro level, to support a burgeoning elderly population, public social expenditure will have to go up since the elderly are the biggest consumers of health care and medical products. The opportunity cost here is twofold: One, if these consumptions come from the government’s coffer, then less public expenditure is available for other areas of state developments. Two, if these consumptions are funded by middle class individuals who are financially stretched, the quality of life for the ‘sandwiched’ middle working class will deteriorate and contribute to a nation with a lower happiness index.

Operationally, as older folks retire, best policies for fostering elderly employability and job mobility to ensure the sustainability of the economy will need to be in place. Since most advanced economies are seeing a decline in birth rates, the most direct method of replacing the retired and invalid senior citizens, is to bring in youthful immigrants and foreign workers to maintain the economic momentum. This however, bears social risks as foreigners need to assimilate into their new countries and inescapable tensions between new immigrants and local citizens need to be managed diplomatically and delicately. More youthful immigrants entering the society also increases the possibility of inter-marriages, which can aggravate existing inter-generational abrasions as family members of inter-marriages not only have to contend with differences that come with age in the household but also dissimilarities in cultural views. Such differences can strain inter-generational ties further, which can leave the elderly more disillusioned and alienated than before. Using migrants as a solution will also alter the larger social landscape of the society as social interactions change accordingly.

Other options to help greying economies stay competitive include raising taxes and retirement age. However, raising taxes is politically sensitive, which makes the government unpopular and raising retirement age means that the notion of a relaxing golden twilight age for those who do not have passive income or sufficient savings becomes a far-fetched dream. In its place is the grim vision of having to work indefinitely till one is unable to. To support a ballooning greying population, Singapore has set up a Tripartite Committee on the Employability of Older Workers in 2005. This committee aims to increase work chances for aged employees, improves cost competitiveness of aged employees, helped them acquire relevant skills, so that they stay employable and foster more positive perceptions of the aged, so as to create a more pro-elderly society. Having an elderly friendly society is important in developing a more cohesive society because traditionally, the stereotypical perceptions of elderly have been negative. Ageing is an inevitable life stage, which most people wish to avoid because ageing is largely synonymous to vulnerability, loss, disability and death.

Once, the elderly were respected for their seniority and their experience recognised as valuable; Now, an increasingly materialistic and greedy economy has gradually grown to view the aged as irrelevant and obsolete in a society where youth is equated to positive adjectives such as life, infinite possibilities and energy – attributes that a competitive economy prizes. The modern condition experiences far more changeable circumstances and overall uncertainties, so much so that innovation and reinventing the old are embraced while preserving or continuing traditions have become less vital. All these modern perceptions and social behaviours put the aged at a disadvantage and can increase their sense of isolation and diminish their sense of self-worth. Given the escalating burden that the greater society faces in supporting a burgeoning silver-hair population, feelings of resentment and stress will further erode any positive perceptions of the aged. This again can diminish the sense of self-worth an elderly feels and isolates the elderly from the larger community, thus putting them at greater risks of mental, emotional and psychological ailments. The failure to engage the greying population creates a vicious cycle that compromises the productivity and efficiency of the economic and social mechanisms meant to help the society as a whole stay ahead.

Employability of the Aged

Truly, finding work as one grows older is challenging, making a career switch in one’s fifties is just as difficult. An older workforce may not be as adaptable to new technology, which can again hamper productivity and competitiveness. Appropriate training needs and vocational planning to support the elderly in job continuation and picking up new, relevant skills are essential to help them achieve financial independence. Since most advanced economies are seeing an inverted pyramid where a shrinking, younger working population is supporting a bigger, older population, it is important that the elderly is financially independent. In Singapore, there are re-hiring schemes to extend the employability of a worker who has reached retirement age and there are available freelance, adjunct and contract positions suitable for the elderly to continue to earn an income. However, some elderly folks may be resistant to taking up a perceived lesser role where previously held authority and command may be reduced. In this regard, the elderly needs to recalibrate their expectations and recognise that even jobs of smaller magnitude can be useful and fulfilling. Such jobs do not indicate that the elderly are marginalised; on the contrary, they reflect a society that still values the productivity of its senior citizens. Educating the public to see working seniors positively is a necessary mind-set shift that encourages all healthy elderly citizens to keep working to stay self-sufficient.

Creating Alternative Social Support & the Usefulness of Communal Bonds

In Asian societies where filial piety is a prized trait, elderly parents are naturally the responsibilities of their children. The family unit is thus the primary care-giver for the elderly person. But, as more people choose to stay single or childless, who then should be responsible for them when they grow old? Perhaps those without immediate families to care for them can find mutual support in closer communal living arrangements. Urban planning thus needs to consider housing and land use policies for seniors, so that their living environment encourages social connections, which is crucial to their social well-being, life satisfaction index and mental health. Accessible sites of communal engagement can decrease the sense of loneliness and reduce psychological problems such as depression and suicidal thoughts. Creating new channels of leisure, forming peer support networks and encouraging the elderly to take on volunteer work are ways that galvanise the elderly to subscribe to an active lifestyle, which can increase cognitive functioning and keep the onset of dementia at bay. It can also challenge the prevalent notion that old age is a passive and therefore less meaningful stage of life.

Being socially active also generates social capital for the active elderly person, so that for those who are widowed, divorced, childless and single, they will more likely have alternative support networks to rely on. Resources can also be shared, thus increasing the economic value of social exchanges. If urban planning can take into account the fostering of surrogate families, then elderly persons without immediate family support will still have alternative social crutches to stay healthy and lively. Such communal networks also safeguard the elderly from falling prey to opportunists who try to swindle and exploit the elderly person. For instance, a Chinese tour guide, Yang Yin tried to cheat a wealthy, childless Singaporean widow whose memory was declining rapidly by pretending to be her son. Since the incident received national coverage, the Singapore government has intensified public advertisements encouraging citizens to nominate a trusted proxy decision maker through the Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) to ensure that in the event that one loses one’s mental faculty, someone reliable can make sound decisions on one’s behalf. In addition, the Singapore government has also taken pains to highlight the import of making a will, so that the elderly person’s assets are allocated according to his wishes. The senior citizen should also leave an Advance Medical Directive (AMD) in the event that he becomes terminally ill and death is inevitable; his doctor knows whether to give any life-sustaining treatments to prolong his life. Finally, the organised old person is expected to subscribe to an Advance Care Plan (ACP) to provide clear instructions of one’s preferred health care treatments when one is unable to speak for oneself.

Clearly, Singapore has in place policies to safeguard the elderly person’s interests in the event that he becomes incapacitated, but there are more we can do to cover the ground. One such area we can improve is strengthening familial and communal bonds, which can play a very significant role in protecting the elderly person’s interests and improving the experience of old age. With the increase in transnational families, having close communal ties not only offset any effects of emotional or psychological hardships, it also ensures that practical help is at hand should the elderly requires any emergency aid.

Each month, for example, around 100 old people are admitted into hospitals for falls and old people are more prone to hip injuries which can take up to 18 months to heal. Nurturing close community ties which develops organically is more loving and thus easier for the aged to accept than placing them in retirement homes where they are taken out from their comfort zones and friendless. While there is nothing wrong with paid nursing services and some aged may even prefer it, especially those who are chronically and severely sick, placing able-bodied aged in homes on the other hand, gives the sense of abandonment, which can be very hurtful for the aged. Sending Singaporean old folks over the causeway to save costs is similarly, an economically viable but unnatural act that goes against the national tone of promoting family unity, responsibility and providing loving support for the aged in the familial institution.

Indeed, it is an oxymoron to encourage family to stay together and also accept putting our elderly folks in a home that is, which is worse, in a neighbouring state where we can take advantage of the weaker currency exchange rate. It cannot be lost on us that doing so feels like a move that cuts off the old, which runs contrary to the gentler but more complex option of integrating them into the society. Lower cost aside, it is definitely more inconvenient for those residing in Singapore to visit the elderly if he is placed in Malaysia and this means the frequency of visits will decrease not to mention the speed in which the family can respond to any emergencies which requires their presence. The usefulness of having robust social networks cannot be over-emphasised because having such networks also mean that care-givers who tend to sacrifice full-time jobs to care for an elderly sick person can occasionally get a breather by relying on members of his community to help him out from time to time. In the long run, full-time care-givers do not burn out so easily and can be more effective in their roles. A sense of bonding and community giving can also increase the overall sense of belonging and love for the community, its members and the nation and its leaders who make this possible.

All in all, while ageing comes with certain setbacks such as decreased job options and at various levels, some forms of deterioration from physical impairments to more superficial loss such as cosmetic attractiveness, the experience of ageing need not be all doom and gloom. With the right mind-set and adequate social, economic and communal support, the average old person can still enjoy his twilight years and make full use of this last stage of life with dignity and joy. As the aged Ulysses declares,

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming that strove with Gods.
The lights began to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.