Sunday 29 January 2012

Help seniors stay healthy, happy and attract immigrants

IT IS heartening to learn that our elderly are living longer and staying healthy and active as they age ('Greying society? Yes, but with a silver lining'; Monday).

There are two areas of work in tackling a greying population.

First, help the elderly stay healthy and live their remaining years happily.

Second, slow down the greying process through immigration and boosting births. Sometimes, these efforts may be misconstrued.

Many do not understand an ageing population would add mounting fiscal burdens and erode the competitive edge for our future generations to survive. The nature and size of our greying problems in the coming decades need to be told and digested.

When the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) released its population projections for 2050 in September last year, parliamentarians and policymakers should have discussed it seriously, at least the four scenarios published in the press ('Population will shrink without immigrants'; Sept 8).

In the scenarios where zero net migration was allowed, IPS showed that support ratios - working-age persons to one elderly person - could drop from 8.2 in 2010 to as low as 1.7 by 2050.

In the other two scenarios where 30,000 and 60,000 net migrants were allowed yearly, the support ratio would drop to 2.7 and 3.5 respectively.

We need to be concerned about the various implications when our support ratio drops to five or four from about eight now.

Policymakers should project how much more taxes Singaporeans would have to pay because of the declining tax base and increasing costs to keep the expanding grey population healthy when our support ratio drops to various numbers. We need to know also the projected average age of workers and the shortages of manpower in each scenario with varying numbers of yearly immigrants.

Citizens would then understand better why allowing 30,000 immigrants a year, if not more, is a basic necessity for Singapore to survive in the long term.

We would also give more urgency to dealing with ageing problems.

Ng Ya Ken
ST Forum, 28 Jan 2012

Greying society? Yes, but with a silver lining
Elderly people today are healthier, more active and a resource to tap
By Salma Khalik, The Straits Times, 23 Jan 2012

SINGAPOREANS born today can expect to live almost two decades longer than those born in 1965, when the country became independent.

Life expectancy then was 64.5 years. In 2010, it was 81.8 - a good 17.3 years longer.

Not only are people living longer, more are staying healthy and active as they age. Slowing down, falling ill and feeling old have all moved to later and later in life.

People in their 70s and beyond do not act as 'old' today as people the same age did 20 or 40 years ago.

Highlighting this, Mr Heng Chee How, Senior Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office, noted the brighter side of Singapore's greying society.

While Singapore will have more old people in future, more of them will be fit and active, and living fuller lives than elderly people in the past.

Their longer lifespans and improved quality of life are likely to be the result of a healthier environment and diet, and a greater availability of services.

Mr Heng, who is on the Ministerial Committee on Ageing and who heads a sub committee on active ageing and employability, said: 'At every age point, Singaporeans are healthier today than at the same age point in the past.

'This means that many can continue working beyond the official retirement age of 62.

'We should not neglect that, as numbers grow and characteristics change, what this segment is capable of contributing to one another, and to wider society, changes also. So they are an asset in the making as well.'

Employers seeking workers, for example, should look at this group of healthy older people with experience as a pool to tap.

A baby born in 1965 had a life expectancy of 64.5 years at the time of his birth. But those born that year - now 46 or 47 years old - can expect to live far longer.

In fact, projections by the Department of Statistics Singapore in 2010 gave people born in 1965 an average of 37.8 years more of life. This meant they would live to an average of 82.8 years - considerably more than the 64.5 years projected when they were born.

Mr Heng said what has not changed much is the typical number of years of sickness before death - it remains the last eight years of life.

That means people tend to be relatively fit until about eight years before they die. In 1965, that point arrived when people hit 57; today, it is at age 75.

Said Mr Heng: 'What is reality? In 1965, lifespan was about 65 years. Today, half the people who are 65 years old have a chance of living beyond the age of 85.'

There are already more than 10,000 people in Singapore aged 90 years and older.

'Generally, people do not feel 'old' as quickly,' said Mr Heng.

The more positive aspects of today's elderly have been noted by other experts too.

Dr Wong Sweet Fun, a senior consultant in geriatric medicine at the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, said a better environment, improved education system and social progress have resulted in healthier and fitter older people.

They may have the same medical problems as those the same age decades ago, but today these issues are picked up earlier and managed better, she said.

Dr Wong also noted a key difference in older people today, compared to those she saw when she began practising medicine about 25 years ago: 'The 60-to-70-year-olds today are more active compared to those I encountered when I first started practising.'

Four in five people aged 60 or older consider themselves healthy, according to a study of 5,000 elderly patients published last year by Duke-NUS and the National University of Singapore. Even among those aged over 75, more than three in four said they were healthy and independent.

The researchers concluded: 'While some decline in overall health is a consequence of ageing, the vast majority of older Singaporeans report themselves as healthy overall and in a wide range of health dimensions.'

The study looked at 15 dimensions of health, including the ability to hear, to have strong social networks and to be free from pain.

Mr Heng said part of his job on the Ministerial Committee on Ageing is to try to bring society's perception of older people in line with the reality this group is living in today.

He said: 'At which point do companies consider them to be no longer young and up-to-date? A person reaching even 40 years old, 50, 60?'

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