In just 33 years, one in four people in Malaysia will be aged 65 and above. By then, we would not only be an ageing population, but a super aged population with 24% of our citizens aged 65 and above.

The International Council on Management of Population Programmes and The International Planned Parenthood Foundation (East, South Asia and Oceania Region) recently launched a report with case studies detailing the economic and societal impact of ageing populations in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Cambodia.

Launched by Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development Datin Paduka Chew Mei Fun, the book highlights the challenges each country faces as well as the strategies that must be implemented to tackle the inevitable changing demographic.

The report on Malaysia was researched and written by Assoc Prof Tey Nai Peng, an expert in population studies who was formerly the director of the Population Studies centre of the National Population and Family Development Board.

In his report, Tey highlights two major concerns; the pressure on the country’s healthcare system and the lack of a comprehensive social security system for the elderly.

“The increasing number of older persons is straining our healthcare system. Geriatric care in the country is still underdeveloped and the services that are available cannot meet the rapidly increasing demand. Measures are being taken to train more geriatricians and improve long term care facilities,” he shares.

According to his research, Malaysia has only 23 qualified geriatricians in five geriatric units with about 150 beds to serve a population of 1.4 million older adults currently. The country is “very much lacking” in primary care networks, community care, homecare services, day care, respite care and rehabilitation care which will become increasingly critical as the country ages.

The lack of social protection is another area that Tey has red-flagged.

“Older persons generally depend on income from work or savings as well as financial support from their children. Cash and social assistance are rather limited and many who are in need, don’t receive the aid. The Employment Provident Fund (EPF) and pension schemes cover less than two thirds of older adults. They are also inadequate as most people use up their EPF savings within five years of retirement,” Tey points out.

Grey is the new black

Amid the challenges, Tey points out that Malaysia’s current demography – with the working age group (aged 15-64) making up 67% of the population – presents the country with a “window of opportunity” to sustain economic growth and prepare for the forthcoming grey population.

“This will last for only a few more decades and we must take advantage of this window. We need to take urgent actions. It is important that our country develop and implement policies and programmes that cater to the needs of the rapidly ageing population. Research findings should be used effectively to guide policy making,” he says during the book launch last week.

Among the recommendations offered in the report is the need to make social protection a national agenda to ensure that every person subscribes to some form of old age security, make way for affordable health and life insurance plans by lifting age limits to insurance and advocate for children to invest in health insurance plans for their parents as they do for their own children.

A policy to follow

The National Policy For The Elderly, which aims “to ensure the social status, dignity and well-being” of older persons, should also be implemented concretely.

Stipulations in the policy – such as providing public transportation that is elderly friendly, housing and infrastructure which caters to the elderly and providing an enabling environment for the elderly to carry out recreational activities – must be taken seriously and implemented.

“Population ageing also presents an opportunity to tap the vast human resource reservoir of experienced workers for national development. The government has raised the retirement age but more efforts are needed to promote active and productive ageing,” opines Tey.

Chew acknowledges the need to take more “concrete actions” to safeguard the elderly through policy and the implementation of programmes.

“We need to work harder to develop a more comprehensive plan to prepare for this phenomenon. Population ageing is not neccessarily a bad situation as it is a by-product of development, improved health structures and systems that have resulted in reduced mortality and increased life expectancy. Combine it with the decline in fertility rates and that’s why we have a rapidly ageing population.

“The ministry, through the National Population and Family Development Board, has tried to realise the appropriate size for Malaysian families but maybe we need to do more. We need to encourage the young to marry and start their families,” she says.

Working together

Chew urges communities and corporations to work with the government to build a society that allows the elderly not only to live longer, but with dignity.

“The Ministry has programmes in place. We even have a task force involving other relevant ministries to come up with policies and programmes looking into the needs of the elderly. But we can’t rely only on government programmes,” she says.

She cites the example of the day activity centres for the elderly which the government has set up.

“We currently have 51 activity centres throughout Malaysia with activities for the elderly. These are also spaces for the elderly to meet and make friends so that they won’t be lonely and alone. But these aren’t enough. We want to encourage communities to set up similar centres in their residential areas. Why not make use of the premises of residents’ associations as activity centres for the elderly? We can work together to make this happen,” she says.