Wednesday, April 24, 2024
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Old and poor: Thailand sleepwalking towards ageing crisis

Unless she lines up in the hot sun for a free meal, ketchup on bread is the only food Thai widow Noi can afford on her small government pension.

Her payout of around 82 US cents a day makes cooking at home near impossible.

“If it’s too wet to come, I eat 7-Eleven bread with ketchup,” the 73-year-old told AFP at a Bangkok Community Help Foundation meal delivery tent that feeds 500 of the city’s homeless and poor daily.

Thailand is one of the world’s fastest ageing societies, according to the World Health Organization — but its economy is ill-prepared.

Research from major lender Kasikorn Bank estimates that by 2029 the kingdom will join a list of super-ageing societies where more than 20% of the population are older than 65.

But Thailand has not reached the same level of wealth as some other ageing societies such as Japan and Germany.

“We’ve become old before we’ve become rich,” said Kasikorn Bank chief economist Burin Adulwattana.

“We’re not ready.”

Currently, Thailand is home to more than 12 million over-60s — around 18% of the population.

Low incomes, limited savings and inadequate government pensions will mean many endure extreme poverty, while fewer taxpayers and a healthcare spending bill expected to triple will be a huge fiscal burden.

– ‘Ticking time bomb’ –

“It’s definitely a ticking time bomb,” said Kirida Bhaopichitr from the Thailand Development Research Institute.

Poverty among older adults is already widespread, with 34% of Thai seniors living below the poverty line — surviving on less than $830 a year, according to Kasikorn.

To retire well in Bangkok at least $100,000 in savings is needed, Mr Burin said, but many Thais are retiring with less than $1,300.

In August, the outgoing government announced it was restricting a previously universal pension of between $16 and $27 a month to low-income earners, cutting off six million people.

PM Srettha Thavisin has vowed to eradicate poverty by 2027 and “leave no one behind”.

His party made an election pledge for an $8.1 billion elderly welfare package but the government has not announced any pension boost.

Last month Social Development Minister Warawut Silpa-archa dismissed calls to raise the pension to $81 a month, saying the kingdom could not afford it.

“I wish the government could provide more support because right now the cost of living is skyrocketing,” said 73-year-old Chusri Kaewkhio in Bangkok’s Khlong Toei slum.

Her 75-year-old husband Suchart Kaewkhio lies on a bed, in an adult diaper, staring up at the peeling paint and water-damaged ceiling but Ms Chusri said they had no money for repairs.

They borrow cash each month to buy expensive milk for her husband’s feeding tube and are five months behind on their electricity bills.

There is a cultural expectation in Thailand that adult children will look after their parents as they age.

But economist Burin said this is unsustainable in the long term as the economy grapples with a smaller workforce, lower growth and consumer spending.

– ‘The pension is not enough’ –

While men work until about 65, Thai women start dropping out of the workforce around 50 to care for ageing parents and in-laws, researcher Kirida noted, adding that there needs to be an increase in affordable elderly daycare centres.

Orn Keawwilat, 57, faces a difficult juggling act — caring for her sick elderly parents while running a small general store to support her household of 12.

Her bedridden father Arj, 88, recently had a fall trying to get to the bathroom and has lost the ability to speak because of motor neurone disease.

“He has to be hand fed and supervised all the time because sometimes he chokes,” Ms Orn told AFP.

Thailand’s demographic shift requires major physical and cultural changes and investment.

The labour ministry is considering lifting the retirement age beyond the current 55-60 years old.

A future government may be required to lift the value-added tax from seven to 10% as well as consider taxing wealth and inheritance, Burin said.

Bangkok governor Chadchart Sittipunt is ramping up senior activity centres and health clinics.

But for many, retirement with dignity is a pipe dream.

A former teacher for 30 years, Aew never married, lost her home during the pandemic and now sleeps on seats at the Bang Sue Grand train station.

“The pension is not enough. I also make plastic flowers to sell on the street… But I want a job,” the 70-year-old said.

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