Asia’s fast greying population poses a real threat to the future of their economy; on the flipside, it could present a golden opportunity for developers to build housing for senior citizens.
An elderly Chinese man sat at the edge of his bed, his aging body was frail, well-worn by hard labour and ailment. He stared into nothingness with defeated eyes as he turned the piece of tattered paper in his hand over and over again—a letter that he received from his son about a year ago.
“We can’t afford your medical treatment anymore.”
He crumpled the letter, picked up the bottle of pesticide from a low coffee table in front of him and took a long swig. He then laid back on the mattress, and closed his eyes. A few houses away from him, an elderly woman waited quietly as her husband climbed on top of a chair with shaky legs and tied two ropes around the ceiling beams. He then helped her up the other chair, looped the roped around both of their necks and kicked the chairs from under them. Just down the road, an old woman was found dead in a well.
Such is the tragic fate of the elderly in rural China—an outcome of their one-child policy that turns the once fastest growing population in the world into one of the fastest aging nation. However, the world’s most populous nation isn’t the only country suffering this plight.
The Greying Continent
A shocking report released by the United Nations shows that from 1994 to 2015, the number of people aged 65 and above in Asia has surpassed 225 million. This accounts for more than two thirds of the global population in that age group and is expected to reach 857 million over the next 50 years; while the population of the working-age group will remain stagnant. China and Japan, for example, have a rapidly declining workforce and have started feeling the pressure of having to support a huge aging population. So, why does the process of population aging occur much more rapidly in Asia than it did in Western countries—and at a much earlier stage of the economic development?
Population imbalance is a problem unique to developed nations, hence in Western countries as well as Japan, declining and aging population is at an advanced stage. But their matured economy allowed them the luxury of time to properly prepare to support an aging society; unlike the other developed economies in Asia which are still at their infancy stage and are poorly equipped to handle these challenges. As women become better educated and as cost of living rises, couples naturally tend to bear fewer children. Now countries like China and Singapore, which had intentionally skewed their population in order to climb into the ranks of developed countries are paying a deadly price.
Equally significant, developing nations’ culture is such that children are expected to care for their elderly parents as opposed to the more developed regions where the elderly prefer to live independently. A poll ran by the South Korean government discovered that the percentage of children who think it’s their duty to look after their parents has shrunk from 90% to 37% over the last 15 years. These demographic changes raise important concerns about the possible weakening of filial piety and traditional arrangements that guarantee old-age security. As a result, there is a looming worry about their future living arrangements; such as whether or not they’ll be able to live with their families, says Kiyoshi Sayama, Director of MBM Health, a company that specialises on elderly care services: “Imagine if your children refuse to take you in, where can you find a place that allows you to live in a comfortable environment and provide you with day-to-day assistance?”
Given a choice, most people in their golden years would rather live in a place where they have an emotional connection —a place where they feel a sense of belonging, shares Susan Suah, Deputy President of National Council of Senior Citizens Organisations Malaysia: “As you age, you seek convenience, security and comfort because these elements make you feel safe. It’s the same no matter which continent you come from.”
The Right Kind of Intervention
As the population continues to age, there is an urgent need to adapt the country’s policies and the provision of services to meet the demands of a nation with an increasing proportion of older people. There is a gaping hole between supply and demand in aged care living in Asian countries but there is very little initiative taken by the governing authorities and developers to fill it. “Currently, all of the economic activities and developments are targeted for the younger group but never for the older generation. In the past, there were talks about importing ideas from the West and building retirement villages here, but how many of these projects have taken off?” asked Suah, referring to the Malaysian context.