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Elderly People Fighting for Life

By Tiep Seiha
Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia

In a room where many strips of dried bamboo lie across the gray floor, Kham Bang Kattiwong, 70, sits near other old people. Her hands are busy with the bamboo, trying to weave a basket whose sale will support her granddaughter’s study and daily life during her old age.

Looking carefully to the bamboo, she tries to make it rounded like a basket. She speaks without stopping her weaving. Sometimes she smiles while speaking, sometimes she takes off her glasses for cleaning. Kham Bang says that she tried to weave from morning till evening, and during a month she can finish about 20 baskets. She earns 500 baht per month from her weaving.

“Working here, I cannot have enough money to pay for my grandson’s study and our daily living,” said Kham Bang.

Her husband died of lung cancer 10 years ago, leaving her and two daughters. Kham Bang said she and her daughters tried to work for other people on the farm, then in 2006 her daughters went away to work in Malaysia as masseuses, leaving a 12-year-old grandson to live with her because of poverty.

“No rice, no farm, I am waiting for other people who want to employ me to do the farm, but now I am too old, I cannot go to work in the field,” Kham Bang, living at Baan Nang Peng village, Mae Ai district, said in a low voice while moving her basket. “I have to work to eat, I am too old and I support my grandson in his studies.”

Asia’s older population is the largest and fastest growing in the world. The number of people aged 65 and above is expected to increase from 207 million in 2000 to 857 million in 2050, according to a 2001 United Nations report.

Asians are facing unprecedented problems with health, poverty, care giving, and loneliness as the population ages. But older people can still contribute significantly to society, according to regional representative of HelpAge International Asia-Pacific, Eduardo Klien.

Traditionally, senior citizens in Asian countries often live with their children who care for them, or they live alone when their children move away for jobs in Asia’s cities.

According to a December 2007 British Geriatrics Society (BGN) report almost, three-quarters of Thai elderly people live with their spouse and children, while 16 percent live with their spouse and 6.3 percent live alone.

Kham Bang is one of about eight million people aged 60 and up among a total population of 65 in Thailand whose children went away for jobs leaving them to live alone, said Aphassree Cheikuna, project coordinator of Foundation for Older Persons’ Development (FOPDEV).

Kham Bang tried to recall her life story with deep breathing. She said she misses her two daughters and wants to see them, even though her daughters send her about 2,000 baht every two months.

Like Kham Bang, many Thai grandparents care for their grandchildren—sometimes because AIDS has claimed their children. When their children die, there are often grandchildren left for the elderly people to look after, said Aphassree. In such families, the elderly people in Thailand feel lonely and work harder because when their adult children live with HIV/AIDS, the parents are often forced to care for their sick children and to try to re-enter the work force to earn money for medicine and other living costs, said Aphassree.

Seventy-seven percent of people who live with HIV/AIDS are under the care of old people, said Klien. 

Chanfong Fumfuey, 72, who lives in Sansai district, Chiang Mai, is suffering because her two sons are living with HIV/AIDS, while the eldest son passed away 16 years ago. Since then, HIV/AIDS has cast a shadow over Chanfong’s life. Her eyes change to red immediately when she tries to recall her past life.  

“My son died in my arms. I didn’t have even enough money; I had to borrow money from other people for my son’s funeral. I felt that I was going to die, and I felt so tired,” said Chanfong.

Chanfong said her neighbors in the past distanced themselves from her because they knew that her oldest son lived with HIV/AIDS.

“There was no one who wanted to see my face and talk to me because they feared, and they maybe didn’t know what HIV/AIDS is. But I ignored them; I just care for my son,” she said.

Besides HIV/AIDS cases, elderly Asians face health problem related to chronic disease such as heart attack, diabetes, and hypertension. Eighty percent of chronic disease deaths in Asia in low- and middle-income countries are due to chronic diseases; those will increase from 59 percent to 69 percent between 2002 and 2030, said Klien. Many developing countries are facing a ‘double burden of disease’ because they still battle infectious illnesses such as malaria, as well as modern-day lifestyle diseases of old age, said Klien.

Smelling of medicine and sitting with other old people who lie in their beds in the Thammapakorn Home for elderly in Chiang Mai, Kiang Kanpan, 89, looks skinny.

“My hip and back often hurt,” Kiang said while others look so weak in their beds. The doctor told Kanpan that her pain comes from her kidneys, she said. “Sometimes my heart feels like someone is squeezing it,” she said.

Kiang is one of 113 old people living in the home for elderly. Suphakarn Unpho, a social worker with the Ministry of Social Development and Welfare, said that old people live in the home for elderly when they don’t have support from their family or they cannot live alone.

As society changes and there are fewer adult children to provide support, many men and women in Asia will be forced to continue working into old age, according to East-West Center.

Kham Bang’s neighbor in Bann Nang Peng, Mae Ai district, a 67-year-old named Rong Phroa, tries to sing in a low-pitched voice a song that he wrote by himself about his life. It is a sad song. He said he lives alone in a small house and he tries to weave baskets for survival, even though his right hand is disabled.

Earning less than $1 USD per day, Phroa can make 500 baht per month from weaving baskets as Kham Bang does. That is about 50 cents a day below the poverty line.

Fifty-five million older Asians, or 15 percent of people over aged 60, live on less than $1USD per day, said Klien.

In Thailand, there are about 30 million people in the work force and 9.4 million people paying into Thailand’s social security system, said Chantana Boon-Arj, chief of International Affairs with the Social Security Office. In 1998 Thailand initiated a pension system that requires members to contribute each month. But only a portion of the work force does this, and no one will begin to receive pension benefits for several years.

According to a 2002 report in Nursing and Health Sciences, the number of old people aged 60 and over who are considered to be retired and unemployed will increase from 12 percent in 2008 to 15.25 percent in 2020.

According to a December 2007 BGN report, older Thai people get their income from working (40 percent), family members (35 percent), savings and interest (18 percent), and pensions (4 percent). Some government workers currently receive a pension.

Earning only 50 cents per day, Phroa understands the difficulty of living without a pension as he regularly goes to see a doctor every month. He had a serious motor accident 12 years ago and still has pain, while his two daughters live at their husband’s families at the city, said Phroa.

“I live alone. Every day my younger brother brings me food,” Phroa said, showing his disabled right-hand tremor. “I have lived with my bad hand and backache since 1996.

“I do miss my children. My children earn just enough money for their living. They have no money to send me. They visit me once a year on New Year’s Day,” Phroa said with a sad face. “I don’t know about my life for tomorrow, I live day by day.”

Even though the elderly people are challenged with so many issues such as health problems, poverty, care giving and loneliness, they still have a lot of value. The elderly are the first teachers in their community, said HelpAge’s Klien.

Boaphan Sattitan, 81, is the oldest woman in Huay Bong village, Sansai district. She said that she often provides good advice to young people, and she is happy to share her experiences with other people in the village drawn from what she has experienced in her whole life, she said.

Boaphan is one of many elderly people in Thailand who are necessary and active people in their villages. She always gets up early in the morning and does some cleaning, she said.

“My works bring me fun and I do a lot of activities,” said Boaphan. “It is satisfying for me nowadays.”

This is an important attitude, Klien said. “Elderly people are a part of society and they are very necessary in society; they are a productive force. The elderly persons can combine together and still have energy to work to increase the economy,” said Klien.

Furthermore, the old people are a voting force, said Klien. By 2050, people over 60 will account for almost a third of the voting population in Asia, and the elderly people are a participatory force. They can organize to bring their experiences and wisdom to be a positive influence in their communities, Klien said.

Copyright 2009 IMMF.