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How the old stay young

Talking with those pushing hardest against Thailand's impending status as a 'super-ageing society'

Despite being 65 and frail, Auntie Pim, a retired nurse, doesn't miss a day of her workout classes at the Lumpini Youth Centre and Sports Club, which aside from sports activities for the youth offers retired folks classes on classical Thai music, painting and other arts-based activities.

"Coming to these classes is the highlight of my day. I get to catch up on the latest gossip with people my own age, not to mention work up a sweat," said the spinster, who lives with her niece.

"I live far from Lumpini Park, so the travelling can be physically draining on me. However, if I don't make the effort to come, boredom can set in easily, and soon after, depression. My mental and physical health suffer when I do not have activities outside the home. My niece spends most of her free time with her friends, so I often feel left out."

Auntie Pim accepted that there is a change in today's family pattern. Unlike in the past, when senior citizens lived under one roof as a part of extended families, she said, the elderly today cannot depend on their family members to fill the void of loneliness that comes after retirement.

"Frankly speaking, we have to depend on ourselves for everything. If you are lucky, you might have a family member volunteer to drive you to the hospital. It is important that you keep yourself healthy, and, yes, being financially independent is imperative to living harmoniously under one roof with one's relatives."

Thailand has become one of the fastest-growing ageing societies in the world today, grappling to address this phenomenon that they were least prepared for. Statistics show there are 11.7 million elderly Thais, which accounts for around 16.9% of the entire population. According to Porranee Poobrasert, director of health promotion for vulnerable populations, Thai Health Promotion Foundation, this is the first time Thailand's senior folks outnumbered the youth population.

At a recent seminar titled "NextGen Ageing-Shaping: A Smart Future For An Ageing Society", she further stated that the population aged 60 years and older will increase by 1 million every year.

"Today's pre-senior group, aged between 40 and 59, is still not prepared for their elderly futures, especially in terms of their health awareness and financial status. Because most of the elderly in Thailand suffer from at least one chronic condition, it is imperative that Thai society focus on preparing the next generation for quality ageing in every dimension. For example, the low birth rate will cause labour shortages in the future. In addition, the younger generation will face the burden of paying for the high expenses needed to take care of their family members."

Piyabutr Cholvijarn, president and vice-chairman of Kenan Institute Asia, said on the positive side that this phenomenon had made Thais, especially in urban areas, better aware of the need to look after their health by staying fit. Keeping physically fit is one way to avoid future medical expenses that might arise from not looking after your health earlier in life.

"The idea is to remain healthy at 65 so you don't have to carry the burden for paying a lump sum on your healthcare," he said.

When it comes to working out, however, Piyabutr expressed his concern for people in rural areas. While cycling, for instance, is common in urban neighbourhoods, rural folks might not be into such activities to keep themselves fit. What we see is that physically they might be in good shape because of working on their farms, but on the downside they struggle with alcoholism and lack of nutrition, which causes numerous health issues.

"Research shows that just 30% of our society is equipped with the tools to address the issues that arise from being the fastest-growing ageing society in the world; the rest of the population is still oblivious to how they should be taking care of themselves.

"It is pivotal to educate this group on the type of lifestyle, which includes nutrition and overall physical and emotional health, that will help them to grow old and have the least number of medical issues. Sanitation is still a problem in rural areas and needs to be addressed."

Time is of the essence, added Piyabutr, so a more sustainable awareness campaign needs to be implemented.

"Thailand is playing a catch-up game right now, and that is because our ageing population has grown faster than what we planned, or expected. At the moment it is beyond the government budget to manage this issue. That is why we are trying to create an awareness programme called 'Thai helping Thai', so people [the private sector] who have the tools and resources should chip in and help."

Moreover, he added that if we are to weather this predicament together, educating people at the grassroots level is key.

Suggesting it be tackled on three fronts, Piyabutr continued: "First would be to address the age group of 55 and up in rural areas. We need to find out who looks after their well-being when they fall ill with chronic illnesses, especially when their next of kin have migrated to work in cities and they are left to fend for themselves. We don't have a solution for this, and we hope to address it expeditiously.

"The second part is education. Earning an income is equally pivotal. We have developed a committee which goes out and assembles the elderly in various communities, creating activities for them that offer them knowledge which they can use to earn a livelihood. This knowledge will help them to financially sustain themselves.

"Moreover, migration of the younger generation that is reaching 55 is another group we are looking into. Research tells us that today's university students are the most spendthrift. They have very little knowledge of saving for the future, which to say the least is not a good sign. We need to teach them to spend money prudently. They haven't earned a single baht, but they know how to spend. It is imperative to change the mindset of the millennials if we hope to make any progress in the near future."

The Bank of Thailand predicted that by 2031 the country is expected to become a "super-aged society" and have the second-highest proportion of seniors among Asean countries.

"To tackle such a phenomenon, Piyabutr said overcoming the economic and social development challenges stemming from our ageing society is paramount, which will require a wide range of multi-sector collaborations.

"At the same time, technological innovation offers tremendous potential to improve the lives of seniors in a number of ways, including healthcare and financial services. During the conference, our global and domestic partners shared their expertise in technology and healthcare, as well as identifying new ways to drive a better future for Thailand in the ageing era."

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