Ageing with dignity – a challenge for New Malaysia

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The expensive cost of home care for the elderly has taken a toll on many middle and low-income families, writes Sheila Rose.

It is a common sight in neighbourhoods dotted around the country: a double-storey terrace house, shabby and unpainted, converted into a place for elderly home care.

At the porch of one such home on mainland Penang sat a thin white-haired woman, her eyes greyish and forlorn, wearing pants and a frayed floral blouse. Breaking into a broad grin, she beckoned us to enter the narrow entrance to the hall, happy to receive visitors.

Her granddaughter was visiting her that afternoon as her children were busy working despite it being a Sunday.

But the old woman sighed. “It is very lonely and boring here. There is hardly any space to walk about.” It was blazing hot where she was seated, and she waved an old rattan fan to cool herself.

Another woman, sitting on a worn-out sofa next to her, looked blankly at us. About 10 elderly folks were crammed into a makeshift bedroom in the small hall with fading white walls.

A partition wall separated the male and female residents. Each had a bed with a thin mattress and a small wooden rack as his or her own space. Their faces spoke of rejection and pain. The ones who could afford more had single rooms measuring five feet by 12 feet.

So many of them shared the same basic amenities – one common toilet downstairs. Hardly any place for recreation or a garden to stroll around. Would these cramped conditions further debilitate their already limited ability?

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This sort of setting is typical of the general condition of home care for the elderly from families who can only afford to pay the minimum rate of RM800-RM1,000.

We are moving towards a higher income country, in an era of modern technology and advanced medical care. Yet our elderly who do not have the ability to pay suffer a loss of dignity in our ageing world.

More and more full-time working adults are placing their parents in a home instead of leaving them alone. Unable to cope with their own family expenses, most resort to cheaper homes to care for their elderly parents.

Such homes are a booming business but their facilities may be limited. The drive for profit and the increasing costs of hiring helpers and nurses sometimes results in poorly maintained homes. The expensive cost of home care also takes a toll on many middle and low-income families.

An ageing population is unavoidable with falling fertility and rising longevity. By 2030, 13.6% of the Malaysian population or 4.9 million people will be aged 60 and above. This figure is expected to almost double to 9.6 million by 2050.

Families face huge financial constraints in providing adequate care. Almost 70% of Malaysians have less than RM50,000 in their Employees Provident Fund savings when they retire. This amount hardly guarantees a decent lifestyle for a person reaching an advanced age.

Policymakers need to look at how to enable folks to grow old with dignity. The growing need for decent healthcare for the elderly requires more than just physical space. It also requires emotional and physical care.

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The National Policy for Older Persons has adopted policy responses to the elderly and ageing. But more needs to be done to provide adequate facilities. Consider budget allocations or subsidies to improve the quality of homecare and general care for the elderly.

“When it comes to human dignity, we cannot make compromises,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel once said. We need to look more closely at how to enable more people to age with dignity.

Dr Sheila Rose is a lecturer at a local private college. She recently attended an Aliran writers’ workshop with the theme “Writing for Change in New Malaysia”, where she wrote this piece.

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Cee Tee

Mahathir ageing with disgrace instead of dignity.

Gerard Jayamohan

Mahathir ageing disgracefully