Caring for senior citizens

FOR many developed nations in Asia, population ageing has become a common phenomenon as a result of increasing longevity and declining fertility.  

According to the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, the number of older persons (people aged 60 and above) in Asia, as a whole, will more than double to about 705 million in 2025 from 322 million in 2000.  

Countries like Japan and Singapore will likely have the oldest population by 2030.  

Like many developing countries, Malaysia has been experiencing improved health and longer life expectancy, together with the decline in mortality and fertility.  

These factors, combined, have brought a change to the country’s demographic profile. The total population in Malaysia, at present, is about 26 million and is projected to grow 2% annually.  

By 2020, the country’s population is expected to reach nearly 34 million. Although the population in Malaysia is still not considered old in Asia, the elderly population has recorded a steady increase since the early 1990s. 

The elderly population in Malaysia has recorded a steady increase since the early 1990s.

Findings from the Department of Statistics 2000 Census revealed an increase in the percentage of elderly persons to 6.2% (about 1.5 million) in 2000 from 5.9% in 1991, clearing indicating that demographic ageing is taking shape in Malaysia.  

The census also projected that by 2020 the elderly population would increase to 3.2 million.  

Typical of the Asian culture, Malaysians have a long tradition of filial piety. Hence, providing care and financial support for the elderly is the general responsibility of the family.  

However, familial care for elderly parents in Malaysia has deteriorated somewhat due to several factors.  

The modernisation process and the effects of urbanisation and migration for work have created a situation where young adults live apart from their family, thus affecting their ability to care for their parents.  

In addition, the decline in fertility and smaller family sizes have reduced the number of children to share both social and financial responsibilities for elderly parents.  

Also, the change in the extended family structure towards nuclear families, as well as the steady decline in the number of women as traditional caregivers due to increasing participation in the labour force, have caused a decline in the care for the elderly within the family system.  

Given this changing trend, policymakers need to look into institutional arrangements for providing formal care, which include social security, healthcare and social services, for the elderly.  

In Malaysia, formal social protection provided by the Government includes social security programmes and pension schemes.  

The implementation of the Employees' Provident Fund, since its establishment in 1951, has been fairly successful. However, the fund is not without limitations.  

While the fund aims to provide income support for retired workers, it covers only a small proportion of the older population, mainly those from the formal sector.  

This is due to the fact that contributions to the fund are mandatory for the formal sector, while those from the informal sector are on a voluntary basis.  

The informal sector, which represents a large proportion of older persons, has to rely on personal savings or financial support from families.  

Similarly, government pension schemes are only extended to civil servants. According to a study in 2002, this scheme only provides coverage for less than 1% of the population.  

As older persons also generally require more care than the general population, the Government has provided elderly-friendly facilities that include housing, transportation, recreation facilities, appropriate restrooms, lifts and ramps in public areas.  

The provision of old folk or nursing homes for the purpose of long-term care will soon become a necessity, as the ageing phenomenon becomes more prevalent in Malaysia.  

Although the Government has set up several homes to provide care for the elderly, the provision and accessibility to formal long-term care are still uneven between urban and rural areas.  

Prior to 1995, there was no specific policy to provide for elderly persons in Malaysia. The needs of older persons mainly came under the nation’s overall welfare policy development.  

The National Welfare Policy, which was enacted in 1990, identified older persons under one of its many target groups. The policy, however, was more welfare-oriented rather than development-oriented.  

It was only in 1995 that the policy for the elderly was formulated to cater to developmental needs of the older population.  

Subsequently, in line with policy objectives, several action plans were initiated and sub-committees were established to implement programmes and activities specifically for the older population.  

It is promising to note that more attention is currently being paid to the ageing population in Malaysia.  

The formulation of the National Policy for the Elderly in 1995 and the setting up of the National Elderly Health Council in 1997 confirm that the Government is serious in its commitment to providing care and services for the nation’s elderly.  

It is also assuring to note that non-governmental organisations, voluntary organisations, the private sector and the community are equally committed to supporting the well-being of the elderly.  


  • The writer is senior research officer with the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER).

    For more MIER reports click here

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