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Planning for an aging population

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What do you do when a society that has had as one of its core beliefs that the sacrifices of the parents for their children will be rewarded by caring for the parent in their old age when the child chooses to neglect that duty?  That’s the question that many countries are facing. 

South Korea’s public pension plan has only been in place since 1988, so many of its oldest citizens are not covered and those that are find that the payments barely cover basic living costs.  In addition, the country’s welfare program does not provide support for people who have children capable of supporting them.  Parents often spent their savings to support their children’s efforts to get ahead, believing that they would in turn provide care for them.  With less than half of seniors in South Korea having a pension or retirement plan of any kind, it was a deadly gamble—deadly because parents trying to protect the honor of their children are choosing suicide to deal with the erosion of those family matters.  Suicide among elderly South Koreans has nearly quadrupled in recent years. (Read the New York Times article here.)

South Korea’s statistics echo those of many other industrial countries as children leave their homes for opportunities in the cities.  One in three citizens will be 65 or older by 2025 in Japan.  The Japanese government called suicide, a “national epidemic” in 2007.  And like Korea, the group most at risk is the elderly.  Taro Aso, Japan’s deputy prime minister, a man known for saying inflammable things, was quoted in January of this year as saying “Old people should hurry up and die,” rather than prolonging a heavy financial burden on the nation’s finances by prolonging their lives.  With a declining birthrate and too few nursing homes, Japan’s elderly risk living alone in homes not appropriate for their care needs or living with relatives who eschew the tradition of multiple generations.  “Society and the system will blow up around 2025 without a drastic change,” said Hiroshi Takahashi, a professor of health sciences at the International University of Health and Welfare in Otawara City in this article.

China too has concerns about its elderly.  Younger generations moved away to large cities to find work and eventually raise families so that the percent of its older generation living either alone or with another elderly person has jumped significantly.  The number of people 60 and over has risen to 13.7 percent of the population.  China’s situation is aggravated by the one-child policy.  However, unlike Japan, which doesn’t have enough nursing home beds, China’s beds go largely empty because of cultural beliefs and a slowly rising belief from older Chinese that they don’t want to burden their children.  In December 2012, China passed a law requiring children care for their elderly parents but high costs and significantly fewer trained caregivers than the need may work against the adult children.

In Hong Kong, the government is forcing the elderly into care homes according to a leading member of its own Elderly Commission.  And while that may be an exaggeration, what isn’t up for argument is that a third of Hong Kong residents will be 65 or older by 2041 but their adult children won’t be able to provide care for their parents at home because the low birthrate of the previous generation will leave too small of a population to care for the elderly and still provide financial resources.

Even Myanmar, with its, relatively speaking, small population of elderly is raising concerns about how the elderly will be cared for as family size decreases and life expectancy increases.

The issue is by no means an Asian one.  It’s not a first world versus developing world issue.  It is in fact a world issue.  By 2050 there will be 2 billion people over the age of 60, meaning there will be more old people than there will be children under the age of 15.  By then, 65 countries will have populations in which the elderly will make up 30 percent or more of the population and 80 percent of those elderly will live in emerging and developing economies.  Our world’s lower fertility rate will place a tremendous burden on those younger generations.

The world’s governments are failing on so many levels to prepare for such a future.  It’s too simplistic to say just let me die on an ice flow as some commentators shared on the New York Times article.  So how will you plan for a your own future in which you will need more resources, better health and better access to the help you need?

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