Saturday 26 May 2012

Ageing: Turning crisis into opportunity

What are the social implications of an ageing population, and how can we respond to them as a society?
By Radha Basu, The Straits Times, 25 May 2012

MR WEE Char Lee, 85, spends three to four hours nearly every day volunteering at an activity centre for senior citizens.

The father of three grown-up children shares jokes and gossip about the ways of the world with his peers who frequent the centre. Laughter and camaraderie are what keep him going, acknowledges the former executive in a multinational firm, who has both savings and family support.

Not too far from the Tiong Bahru centre that Mr Wee frequents are some not-so-fortunate older folk who face a far more uncertain future.

I met one of them, Mr Ang Seng Hwee, 65, late last year. He and his wife, Madam Lee Siew Moi, were both surviving on the $297 he got in Central Provident Fund payments every month. Madam Lee, who is in her 50s, could not work because of an earlier wrist injury. He had just lost his job as a cleaner.

They later applied for aid from the Government, which they received. But for three months after Mr Lee lost his job, the couple would walk 20 minutes from their York Hill rental flat to a temple for free food.

Demographers have called ageing one of the defining global trends this century. According to some estimates, no other country will age as rapidly as Singapore.

The big challenge for policymakers, caregivers and the elderly themselves is to ensure that most older folk end up like Mr Wee, rather than Mr Ang.

Between 2008 and 2040, the Republic's proportion of those aged 65 and above will increase by 316 per cent - more than any of over 50 developed and developing countries studied by the United States Census Bureau. The number of older folk here is set to double to 600,000 in under a decade and triple to nearly a million by 2030.

Several factors explain Singapore's rapid ageing. First, thanks to rapid advances in medical science, more people are living longer. Singaporeans have among the longest life-spans in the world. In 1960, a person born in Singapore could expect to live 65 years. By last year, that figure had risen to 82 years.

Meanwhile, the fertility rate - or the average number of children born to a woman of child-bearing age - has plummeted. It was six births per woman at the peak of the baby boom in 1957, declining to about 4.6 births when Singapore attained independence in 1965. It fell to below the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman in 1977 and is now 1.2.

Social implications

SINGAPORE is marking a milestone in the history of ageing. The first cohort of baby boomers born between 1947 and 1965 - during the global post-World War II surge in procreation - turns 65 in Singapore this year.

But while people are living longer, they may not be in the best physical and mental health.

For a start, the numbers of older folk who are disabled and those who live alone - and may therefore be lonely - have doubled.

Over the past decade, the number of those aged 65-plus rose by 50 per cent to around 340,000. Of these, 100,000 live alone or only with an elderly spouse, double from 10 years ago.

The elderly who live alone are a particular concern. In 2000, there were only 15,000 of them. Now, there are 35,000 and the figure will exceed 80,000 in less than two decades.

More than 50 older people have been found dead at home since 2007. Old age depression also appears to be on the rise.

The number of older folk who are disabled and face mobility problems - like those who use a wheelchair - also doubled to 36,000 between 2000 and 2010.

Fears of old age disability prey on the minds of many. In a poll commissioned by the Lien Foundation in 2009, 'being a burden to family and friends' and 'medical costs' ranked as the top two fears associated with death and dying.

What does all this mean for Singapore as a society?

For a start, it needs to invest heavily in eldercare infrastructure. This includes senior activity centres at void decks where lonely seniors can find companionship, and rehabilitation centres for those with mobility problems. Also needed are nursing homes and group homes that cater to the elderly who are frail.

The Government, guided in part by a specially constituted inter-ministerial committee on ageing, has already begun to invest in such infrastructure.

Last year, the Government injected $700 million into an Eldercare Fund, to bring it to a total of $2.5 billion. The money will be used for projects to help older folk stay healthy, engaged and active.

At the same time, it also announced a $1 billion Community Silver Trust Fund, under which it will match private donations made to voluntary welfare organisations working in the eldercare sector dollar-for-dollar.

Community-based services for the elderly are also being ramped up. The number of senior activity centres (SACs) will be increased from 41 to 58 by 2016. By then, these SACs will cater to 39,000 elderly folk, up from the current 18,000. Some $70 million will be set aside for SACs over the next five years.

The Government has also expanded its subsidy system to cover two-thirds of Singaporean households who have elderly members who cannot look after themselves. In the past, only half of such households enjoyed subsidies. Households with a per capita income of up to $2,200 qualify, up from $1,400.

The extra help can be used for home-based, community-based and institutional care. This year, 40,000 frail old people will get the enhanced subsidies, 10,000 more than before.

The Government, however, can do only so much. Ordinary Singaporeans must also do their bit to ensure that the elderly do not feel that they are a burden to society.

Obligations of a society

IN A rather bizarre display of selfishness earlier this year, residents in Toh Yi Drive and Woodlands protested against the building of studio apartments and daycare centres for the elderly in their estates. Some residents likened the facilities to 'death houses'.

This is in sharp contrast to the experiences I had during a recent visit to Britain, the Netherlands and the United States to study senior-living options that could work in Singapore.

I was struck by the number of prescient, private individuals who anticipated the ageing challenge, stepped in early and helped change their own lives - and those of countless others.

Many of them were affluent, educated senior citizens themselves who believe in the 'Power of One'. They anticipated gaps in the eldercare system, conducted polls among their peers on needs, lobbied charities and their respective governments for funds and started movements that have since spread nationwide.

They believe that when it comes to overcoming major national challenges like ageing, governments cannot go it alone. Private citizens can be powerful and positive agents of change.

Many institutional facilities for the old in all three countries, I realised, are run by large pools of volunteers. In Singapore, volunteering, or even neighbours helping neighbours is still the exception, rather than the norm.

As the country hurtles towards collective old age, this is a situation that needs to change - and fast.

Securing the financial future of older Singaporeans

WHAT are the economic implications of ageing and how can we as a society respond to them?

THE economic implications of ageing are daunting. With the baby boomers already hitting 65 and national fertility rates continuing to be at abysmal levels, there are now only 7.9 people aged between 15 and 64 for every person aged 65 and above, down from 17 in 1970.

This precipitous decline in what is known as the 'old age support ratio' means that there are fewer younger people on hand to support older Singaporeans. This means that older Singaporeans will simply need to work longer in order to support themselves. This is especially true of the growing group of singles who don't have children to be their 'old-age insurance'.

The Government will need to step in to help the elderly who can't help themselves or have no family to turn to for financial support in their twilight years. This will cost money.

In recent years, the Government has launched a slew of measures to improve the financial future of older Singaporeans.

The Workfare Income Supplement, for example, tops up the wages of low-wage Singaporeans aged 35 and above. This year, the Re-employment Act came into force. This allows companies to offer to re-hire workers after they reach retirement age.

During the Budget session this year, Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam also announced a scheme to subsidise the wage bills of companies that hire workers aged 50 and above.

Another key announcement made during the Budget session was that workers between the ages of 50 and 65 would enjoy higher Central Provident Fund (CPF) contribution rates of up to 2.5 percentage points, the bulk of it paid by bosses.

All this, of course, is good news. But in Parliament, some MPs questioned whether this was enough. One wanted the higher CPF rates to apply to workers above age 65. Another suggested that the Government raise the interest rates paid for funds in the CPF.

A rate of 2.5 per cent - what the CPF currently pays on funds in the Ordinary Account - will grow a $1,000 balance into $2,098 over 30 years. If the rate went up to 5 per cent, for example, it would grow to $4,322.

Current rules require workers to set aside a minimum sum of $131,000 in their CPF accounts when they reach 55 to meet retirement needs.

Someone with $131,000 in his CPF account at age 55 will get a payout of $1,100 a month for life from age 65, under the CPF Life annuity scheme.

But only 45 per cent of CPF members who turned 55 last year were able to meet this minimum sum. This includes home-owners, who are allowed to pledge their properties to account for up to half the minimum sum.

The Government also announced a $20,000 'silver housing bonus' earlier this year to encourage senior citizens to consider selling their larger flats for retirement income and move into smaller HDB flats.

Mr Tharman said during the Budget debate that CPF savings were enough for retirement for low- to lower-middle income groups. However, the fund was not designed to meet the needs of higher-income earners. The rich, after all, often have private savings, he said.

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