Reports commissioned by Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) over last few years on the “state of the elderly” in Singapore raises more questions than provide answers
Singapore adopted the vision of “successful ageing” as part of its public policy on the elderly in 1999. After more than a decade, it is pertinent to assess how far the country has moved in adopting that vision.
In a seminal report about the National Survey of Senior Citizens 2011, published last year, a total of 5,000 senior citizens (aged 55 or older) were interviewed and nine policy recommendations were made.
The report, prepared by Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and commissioned by Elderly and Disability Group under the MSF, emphasised on the importance of ensuring the availability of care within the community, as more and more seniors are likely to be living on their own in future. “There is also a need to emphasize the building of care networks comprising paid staff and volunteers (including able-bodied seniors) especially within precincts with high concentration of seniors living alone or those who require social and/or health care support,” the authors added.
The IPS report also made a case for reaching out to seniors with potentially debilitating conditions, as well as shifting the focus of community studies on elderly health conditions to medical testing rather than self-declaration, which is the prevalent method now.
Regarding employment of seniors, the report, rather controversially, stated, “Seniors should aim to work for as long as they can, while employers should redesign jobs and human resource policies to accommodate seniors.” Voluntary organisations and social enterprises should also be encouraged to recruit seniors, it added.
Declining family support
As an indication of declining family support to seniors, the report observed, “15% seniors lived in one-person households. This is a marked increase from the reported proportion in the 2005 survey. At that time, it was observed that 6% reported living in one-person households.”
“For the oldest age group, aged 75 and older, there was also a marked increase in the proportion of one-person households as well as two- and three-person households. The former has been steadily increasing since the last survey in 2005, which saw an increase from 4 to 7 percent. In the 2011 survey, this proportion increased to 17%.”
Almost two-thirds of the respondent were living in arrangements that were not considered “traditional”, which means not living with the immediate family. This included living with friends, other kins, unrelated individuals, or living alone. “Elderly in the middle and older age bands were more likely to be living on their own compared to those in the 55–64 age band,” the authors added.
Significantly, only 26% of all dwelling types were found to contain elderly-friendly fixtures, prompting the report authors to note that “there remains room for improvement to enable the elderly population to live independently within the community”. The report also revealed that the frequency of contact between seniors and their children “declined with age” in Singapore.
Hinting towards inadequate financial situation of seniors, the report found that one in five respondents had no savings by the end of each month. Worryingly, the figure rose to 40% for the oldest respondents (aged 75 and above).
“Slightly more than one in four of respondents encountered some degree of financial inadequacy, while one in three of the oldest respondents perceived their financial situation to be so. The two most cited reasons for their financial inadequacy were high cost of living, and low or no income,” the authors added.
In obvious indication of financial insecurity, an overwhelming 83% seniors indicated the main reason for working or returning to work was money. “Overall, only about 17% had active ageing in mind,” the report noted.
Notably, almost 40% of the respondents didn’t agree with the statement that “the government had addressed the concerns of the elderly in Singapore”.
2009 State of the Elderly report
The findings of the latest IPS report builds on the 2009 “Report on the State of the Elderly” in Singapore brought out by the then Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS).
Analysing the occupations of employed senior citizens, the 2009 report had noted, “Senior citizens who were employed were primarily in lower-end white and blue-collar occupations. In particular, women were particularly more likely to be cleaners and labourers (especially the former) due to their lack of educational attainment.” Interestingly, the proportions of elderly males and females in cleaners and labourers positions had increased over the decade although the proportions in professional and managerial positions also grew, the authors added. Among the reasons for post-retirement employment, more than 50% of the elderly surveyed then had cited the reason as “need money for current expenses”. Moreover, “nearly all of the unemployed senior citizens seeking employment expected to encounter difficulties in their job search”.
Feminisation of the aged population
Females outnumbered males among Singapore’s elderly population. While the total sex ratio (males per 1000 females) in Singapore is 968; in June 2013, the sex ratio among Singapore residents aged 65 and over was 809 males per 1000 females. The sex ratio among the 85 and older was even more skewed, at 494 males per 1000 females. This means that there were two women to every man in this age group.
Whether it is the lack of socio-economic support and social inclusion, or simply the loss of will to live, but suicide mortality by older women is on the rise in Singapore. According to the Samaritans of Singapore, a suicide prevention agency, female suicides for the age-group 85 and above reached a two-decade high of 14 cases in 2012. The number was five a year before.