Carefree culture leads to one thing: dark, lonely days ahead

opinion May 06, 2014 00:00

By Achara Deboonme

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A night on Phaholyothin Road followed by a visit to a nursing home in Pathum Thani shed light for me on how low-income poor Thais are preparing for the ageing society.

At a section on Phaholyothin Road, pubs and restaurants have sprung up around a lotus pond, a serene scene as the sun sets. Sitting at a table near the pond watching aircraft slide into the sky from Don Mueang Airport, I basked in the quiet cool of evening.
I was surprised by the menu, though. Despite advertising itself as an Isaan restaurant, its short list didn’t include sticky rice. Another surprise followed when the food arrived: The taste was far from perfect. Well, the view helped. We finished with the food and asked for beer. Though signs advertised several brands, we quickly discovered our choices were few.
A question sprang up: What exactly does this place offer? It couldn’t be the view – the eating area was messy, with tissues littering the pond’s edge. It obviously couldn’t be the food given the limited choice and the taste.
The answer arrived around 9pm, when a troupe of young girls in hot-pants and tight red vests showed up and the live band started to play. Shortly after that, men in their 30s and 40s began to appear. The girls, in their teens and early 20s, hung around their tables pouring drinks and sharing shisha pipes.
The night had just begun for them, but it was time for the over-40s to leave. Exiting, I wondered how often these guys visited the place and how much they paid each night. Average annual income is about Bt107,00 in Thailand, but more than half of us still earn less than Bt50,000 a year. And given our high level of household debt – over 80 per cent of gross domestic product – I wondered how much is being saved for retirement.
How much did these girls earn per month, how long could they do this job and how would they support themselves financially after that?
Most Thais shrug off questions about retirement plans. For many, getting enough food to fill their bellies each day is difficult enough.  And those who earn more often prefer to leave that question unanswered for as long as possible. Which is not surprising, given our low level of savings of only about 30 per cent of GDP.
The high debt against low savings is a worrisome phenomenon, and not only in Thailand but in countries across the world. The issue is aggravated by the growth of the global population of people aged over 60. Some have saved enough to support their lives in retirement, but many others are not so lucky.
The UN estimates there are around 600 million people aged 65 or old alive today, or 8 per cent of the world’s total population. By 2035, more than 1.1 billion people – 13 per cent of the population – will fall into that age group.
In Thailand, the number aged 60-plus is projected to increase to 14 per cent in 2015, 19.8 per cent in 2025 and nearly 30 per cent by 2050. That poses the big question of who will take care of these seniors.
A visit to a government-funded nursing home indicated that many will depend on the state.
The facility is home to 103 men and women aged 60 and over. The oldest is over 90 and some 30 residents are bedridden.
Just to feed the residents costs Bt13,000 per day, with more funds needed to pay staff and other expenses, though occasional donations from charitable individuals and organisations help.
Each day, the residents spend time sitting in the corridors enjoying the cool breeze and waiting for meals and any help they need from staff. In the evening, they watch television before the lights are turned off at 8.30pm.
Many low-income families can only dream of such a place for their elderly parents. “It’s good. Free food and free accommodation,” said one resident. Unsurprisingly, securing a place here is not easy. You have to prove that you have no relatives or that your relatives are unable to support you.
The number of us who will wind up in that position will only rise if so many Thais continue to live reckless lifestyles. It’s common practice to ignore our outstanding debts and sign up for new credit cards. Little thought is given to how much we will have left when we reach an age at which we can no longer work.  
The government can do something to promote saving, but it is also individuals’ responsibility to initiate plans for their own future. Nursing homes are waiting, but the residents look lonely. Visit one and you realise that today’s carefree and reckless lifestyles only guarantee a darker tomorrow.