Sunday, April 09, 2017

The Dignity of the Elderly

 In Myanmar, most seniors rely on their family for support. But as the country becomes more urbanised, this arrangement could put them in a very precarious position once traditional family structures start to break down. 60 per cent of its people over the age of 60 live on less than US$3 per day, according to UN statistics, and fewer than 1 in 5 have any savings at all.

According to UN statistics, 25 per cent of the population live under the poverty line. But news reports in Myanmar have reported that figure to be up to 80 per cent.  It’s very difficult to say who are the poor, and who are the most poor. We don’t have a clear understanding of what poverty is in Myanmar,” said Dr Hein Theht Ssoe, the Social Protection Programme manager at  the NGO, HelpAge International

While the elderly make up just 9 per cent of the population today, this is projected to triple by 2050 to about 25 per cent. Couple these figures with persistent poverty and falling fertility rates, and the sufficiency of the family care model is increasingly under challenge - with critics concerned that the government is ill-equipped to handle the surge of seniors in the near future. 

Buddhist teachings have traditionally emphasised respect towards the elderly, and on the surface it seems like family structures are still strong, with 86 per cent of elderly folks reportedly living with family. But cases of abuse and abandonment are on the rise, so much so that a law was enacted in December 2016 to address the issue. The law sets out to protect the rights, health and economic well-being of the elderly.

Daw Khin Ma Ma is one of the lawyers who worked on drafting the law, and she also runs a nursing home for the elderly who have been abused or abandoned.  “Such a shame on our society,” she said.  Poverty is at the centre of all this... if an elderly person suffers a stroke, they become a burden. The family still needs to make their living every day, children have to go to school. Who will take care of them?” 

Some mentally-ill folks are simply driven somewhere and abandoned by the side of the road, unable to tell rescuers where they live. Other times, seniors are found literally thrown into a rubbish pile, beaten and left for dead. “There have been so many terrible cases that strip off human dignity,” Daw Khin said. To die alone is a dark mark on human society, and it is such thoughts that drive people like Daw Kin to push for more awareness of elderly rights. “We need to educate people that the elderly must not be treated this way in a civil society,” she said.

While poverty has rendered many families unable to care for their ailing parents, the attempt to escape poverty has driven others to move away from home or to look overseas for better job opportunities, leaving their elderly parents by themselves. Increasingly, young couples in Myanmar are choosing not to have children, which cuts out altogether the option of having family take care of them when they’re old. This also means that the government has to create the right social structures now to brace for the wave of senior citizens in the future.
Last year, the Ministry of Social Welfare proposed a universal pension of 25,000 kyats (S$25) for citizens over 65, but had to cut back on its plans because of insufficient budget. Eventually, it compromised on a monthly pension payout of 18,000 kyats (US$13) for seniors over 90 years of age. The average life expectancy in Myanmar is 67 years. 

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