Wednesday, September 28

When was the last time you thought of your aging parents?

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In just over a year, in 2020, the number of Malaysians over the age of 60 will hit 3.3 million.

By then this will represent almost 10 per cent of the total population – one in ten will be considered a senior, a veteran, a retiree or just simply another figure in the statistics.

The thing is – most of us will get there one day, there is no escape, other than death before then. My father turned 93 last February; my mother had passed on three years ago at aged 85. My grandfather had lived to 91. In about two years’ time I will (if I live long enough) hit the magic figure of 70.

Malaysia’s current average life expectancy rate for males is 73.2 and 77.6 for females. It also means that males will live 13 years and females 17 years beyond the normal retirement age.

In effect this means that many of us today would have an aging parent or an elder in the family who are either dependent on us, or we are caregivers to or are at least constant companion of. I include here a spinster aunty or a widowed uncle – who could be living alone, quite independently, or staying with us or some other family member.

When was the last time you had actually given any of them a thought – or brought them out for a meal, or spoke to on the phone, or just paid an unplanned visit if they’re staying on their own?

Loneliness can be a slow killer. Many too are afflicted with ailments associated with the aging – Alzheimer’s Disease strikes 5 pct of our total population over 65; among the other major causes of death are unhealthy eating and diabetes. Aging itself is not a disease, the improvement in life expectancy over the years has been due to various factors, among them good access to health care, infrastructure, food and a better standard of living. However easy access to food and the increased frequency of meeting up for meals have impacted on our overall health particularly for the aging; as eating outside can be highly unhealthy due to the prevalence of added sugar and salt as well as MSG (monosodium glutamate or Aji-no-moto).

By the year 2035, just 16 years down the road, Malaysia will reach an ‘ageing nation status’ where the number of people over 60 years will make up 15 pct of the total population!

Many of us over 60 have chosen to continue to lead an active or semi-active working life – continued interest in work, be it self-generated or as an employee often results in higher personal morale, happiness, longevity, better adjustment and a larger social circle – all leading to a better overall healthier state of mind and body. As it is, Malaysia today has a rather comprehensive medical and health care service for the general population, although special programmes for the aged may be lacking. Our current health care system is geared more towards short term care and hospitalisation – whereas long term care and rehab from acute illnesses are lacking. Thus it is rather inadequate to cater for the elderly with their chronic diseases and disabilities.

The Ministry of Health’s current allocation accounts for only five per cent of the annual national budget or RM2.6 billion and thus equals only RM125 per capita!

We hope that with the new Pakatan Harapan government in the new budget to be announced later this year that there will be a substantial increase! Even doubling the per capita to RM250 would just mean RM5.2 billion…a drop in the ocean. As a comparison, the United States of America spends about 14 pct of the GDP; and the G-7 countries spend between 5- 8 pct of the GDPs respectively. Therefore asking for 10 pct isn’t all that ambitious. Existing institutions for the aged are not adequate to meet current demand so we need to build even more homes for the aged – for all stratas of the population. Fair enough we have the luxurious gated homes and estates tailored for the hyper-rich and the retired millionaires – but they are costly and very few in numbers.

At the present time, we are still dependent on a few government run aged homes and charitable and religious organisations which have set up such homes; there are few low-cost or even medium-level aged homes to be found anywhere. Community services that enable the elderly to remain active and care for themselves too are lacking. Where are the social clubs, the rehab centres, counselling and advice centres – where are the public services whereby volunteers can help out with home nursing, mobile libraries, transport services, meals on wheels, etc etc?

On a personal basis, many of us have gone through the tough decision period – of whether to care for an aged parent at home or to admit him or her into a home for the aged. It’s a very personal decision and has to be based on many factors, among them whether both you and your spouse are working; you have growing children to look after; proximity of home to work place; maid situation; other family influences and so on.

There is no one right answer. There is only the heartache of sending a loved one to a home; or the headache of leaving her at home with either no one around during the working hours of the day; or the third option if you can afford it, to employ a maid or caretaker to look after her at home. No matter how you approach this rather sensitive issue; and no matter what your ultimate solution would be – there are basically three vital issues to face at the end of the day.

One –whatever your decision, you must continue to maintain contact with him/her on a very regular basis; two – loneliness is a real problem which distresses and isolates an aging loved one; three – don’t ever forget the fact that eventually we all become our own parents as our time will surely come!

We can only keep our aging process at bay for the present time – but we all get there one day too. Then it’s our children’s turn to make that difficult decision.