IN 15 years, our world will look a lot grey-er. The proportion of people aged over 60 is growing faster than any age group – a direct result of success in medicine, nutrition and family planning, to name a few. We have been successful in adding years to our lives, but adding life to those extra years is another story. Are we prepared for an ageing society? Are we able to address the needs of the elderly?
The answer, woefully, is that we are not. The good news is that we still have time; demographic studies show that Malaysia will have an ageing population only in 2030, when 15% of our people will be aged 60 and above. By 2050, a quarter of our population will be above 60 years old.
Technically speaking, we have 14 years to step up and get our act together.
Malaysia has a national policy for the elderly which has noble objectives; to enhance the respect and self-worth of the elderly, develop their potential so they remain active and productive, to ensure their protection and independence and continuing education.
Some of these objectives have been fleshed out in programmes run mostly by the ministries of Health and Women, Family and Community Development.
For example, the Welfare Department has daycare facilities or activity centres (Pusat Aktiviti Warga Emas or Pawe) where the elderly get to network with their peers and participate in leisure activities organised for them.
But there are at present only 45 Pawes in the country to cater for the 2.66 million senior citizens in the country. We need to do more.
The welfare services also offer protection and counselling services and aid for the elderly but their main focus is on the poor and destitute, the most vulnerable segment of our population.
Government welfare homes, for example, prioritise older people who have no family, but what about those who are neglected by their family? We need to provide services for all segments of society.
We need laws that protect the elderly and safeguard their rights. For example, we need specific laws that safeguard them against abuse.
At the moment, elder abuse comes under the protection of the Domestic Violence Act (DVA).
However, the dynamics of elder abuse are different from spousal abuse.
Although policy and legislation are important, population ageing has to be addressed by both the government and the public.
We need to take charge of our lives. We need to prepare for ageing. We need to look after ourselves while we are young so that we will be able and independent when we are older.
We need to build our networks from now so that when we are older, we can have our support system.
We need to save for our old age. Financial independence gives us options to live a more fulfilled life in our twilight years.
As caregivers, we need to be aware of our limits and get help when necessary. Employ a maid or a nurse, full-time or part-time.
And, we need to change the way we define old age. With age, people develop multiple chronic diseases and become slower. Some people will become more frail and experience dementia or have poor mobility.
Growing old isn’t a miserable process; it’s a natural process. Just because someone retires, it doesn’t make them incapable of participating in society.