Tuesday 10 January 2012

Wanted: 11,000 elder care workers by 2020

Amy Khor tasked with adding to the 4,000 already in the sector
By Salma Khalik, The Straits Times, 9 Jan 2012

BY 2020, Singapore will need almost four times the number of people to work in the elder care sector than it now has, revealed Dr Amy Khor, who has been tasked with getting those workers.

That means recruiting 11,000 more workers in all categories - from doctors and nurses to therapists and health-care attendants - over the next eight years, she said. The figure that has been made public for the first time underscores the unenviable task Dr Khor has ahead of her.

Today, this sector employs only about 4,000 people. With the rapidly ageing population, the need for many more caregivers will shoot up.

But the problem is attracting enough people to join the sector, which is seen as being of low status, with jobs that are not well-paid, said Dr Khor.

Dr Khor, who is Minister of State for Health, chairs two of five subcommittees set up last year under the Ministerial Committee on Ageing (MCA). Besides making sure that housing estates and public facilities are elderly friendly, she is also tasked with managing the manpower needs for the elder care sector.

The MCA has proposed that Singapore will go in the direction of keeping the elderly at home and in the community for as long as possible - instead of institutionalising them in nursing or old folk's homes.

Boosting manpower for the elder care sector is crucial to achieving such a goal, Dr Khor said in an interview with The Straits Times. This is especially so, given that fewer people are marrying and having children, which means that many elderly people in future will be single with no family to care for them, she pointed out.

'It is a double whammy,' she said, referring to how changing demographics is adding to the challenges of an ageing society.

Hence, many more workers will be needed to provide services to the elderly, be it running day-care centres or providing food for those who are too frail to do their own cooking.

Preliminary studies show that such services are feasible and might not even cost more than building more nursing homes.

But it is difficult to attract enough people to work in a sector where salaries are about 20 per cent to 30 per cent below those of health-care institutions, said Dr Khor.

Adjusting salaries to match the market rate is the easiest problem to solve, she said. But with the health-care sector also needing more manpower, it will be a fight for step-down care, with its poorer image.

She is hoping to encourage housewives and retirees to take on part-time work.

Those with nursing skills will be in great demand, but even the unskilled can help with cleaning and cooking for the elderly, she said. The idea is to tap residents in the community.

Fortunately, a large part of manpower needs for the ageing sector involve the less skilled.

'I hope we can train up enough people in a short period,' she said. 'It's a sunrise sector, not sunset - there are golden opportunities in the golden years.'

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