GROWING old is no longer as blissful as once thought as about 10 million Thais struggle to cope with retirement, which is proving costly when they come down with serious illnesses such as stroke, cancer and dementia.
Thai life expectancy is now 74 years: 72 for men, 78 for women. This is a jump of 15 years from 1970 when life expectancy was 59.
With 15 per cent of the population over 60, the government has expressed fears about coping with the cost of looking after 20 million senior citizens by 2025.
The Pfizer Thailand Foundation says it is helping authorities meet the challenge by designing a plan under its “Healthy Ageing Society” scheme to improve health and prepare financially before it is too late, said the pharmaceutical giant that sells such drugs as Ibrance, Lipitor and Viagra.
“Most Thais build up their nest eggs too late. That is why a large percentage cannot cope with the costs that come with old age,” said Dr Kittima Sriwatanakul, who is in charge of the programme in conjunction with non-profit group the Kenan Institute. The government’s Bt600-a-month cash subsidy is hardly sufficient for urban retirees.
“The best way to deal with ageing is for people to rely more on themselves. The foundation wants people to set aside funds as early as possible, preferably when they are in their mid-30s.”
A recent study estimated that Bt4 million to cover 20 years of retirement was a rough figure for a middle-class urban dweller, Kittima said. “But it won’t cover serious illness, which could quickly wipe out this amount.
“The foundation is working in two districts in Bangkok and two in Udon Thani to encourage people to adopt responsible lifestyles, exercise and eat healthy food.
“These actions can prevent obesity and stress that bring on the biggest killers such as heart attacks, strokes, cancer and premature organ failures, such as liver and kidney diseases from excessive drinking.”
The three-year programme has started in Bang Khuntien and Klong Toei in Bangkok as well as Udon Thani’s Muang and Warinchamrab districts.The three-year programme has started in Bang Khuntien and Klong Toei in Bangkok as well as a couple of places in the Northeastern region.
“We find respondents recognising the dangers but few are willing to ditch bad habits such as excessive alcohol intake,” she said.
Thailand is expected to have the largest elderly population of the 10 Asean countries by the next decade. But more worrisome is that many will contract serious illnesses that can bankrupt them.
Selim Sezgin, chairman of the foundation, said the programme sought pragmatic and workable solutions to the challenges.
Kittima said that most important of all was recognising that government assistance has limitations. Local authorities are wary of adopting ambitious programmes such as the “entitlement” provisions in the United States and Europe that have proved extremely costly.
“A more balanced approach is needed in Thailand,” she said. “How do we construct something that endures without punishing taxpayers who have to foot the bills?”
The social divide between urban and farming communities also needs to be factored in during the search for solutions. Most rural folk will never be able to set aside Bt4 million but many have assets in farms that feed their families and bring them income constantly. This natural safety net of small farmers is one of the Kingdom’s strongest pillars of stability.
More than 75 per cent of Thais still live in the provinces where there is far less need for money than in urban areas. But poor education in the outback and financial schemes that dupe them into indebtedness endanger these communities.
The foundation’s programme seeks to inform provincial folk on the merits of saving wisely and avoiding unnecessary financial risks.
The plan mirrors the “sufficiency” principles of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who urged people to adopt self-reliance as the best way to deal with personal difficulties.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has also repeatedly warned the public that bailout schemes of past years are unsustainable. “People cannot expect government to give free land and free money indefinitely,” he said.