As the traditional structures of Thai family life are gradually eroded, a number of initiatives in Chiang Mai are helping the elderly cope with old age and loneliness.
In a room with strips of dried bamboo lying across a grey floor, Kham Bang Kattivong, 70, is busy weaving a basket that will support her and her granddaughter’s education. She tries to make 20 baskets a month, which will make her about 500 baht ($14).
Her husband died of lung cancer 10 years ago, leaving behind her and two daughters. In 2006 her daughters went to work in Malaysia as masseuses, leaving a 12-year-old grandson with her. “No rice, no farm, I am waiting for other people who want to employ me. Now I am too old, I cannot go to work in the field,” she said.
Worldwide, the number of people aged 65 and above is expected to increase from 207m in 2000 to 857m in 2050, according to a 2001 United Nations report. Thailand’s older generation is estimated to be the largest and fastest growing in the world. As vulnerable members of society who believe their life is drawing to a close, they are facing unprecedented problems with health, poverty and loneliness. Eduardo Klien, regional representative of HelpAge International—Asia/Pacific, though, believes the elderly can have a pivotal role in modern society.
According to a December 2007 British Geriatrics Society report almost 75% of Thailand’s elderly live with their spouse and children, 16% live with their spouse and the rest live alone. Kham Bang is one of about 8m over 60-year-olds who live alone.
Like Kham Bang, many Thai grandparents care for their grandchildren. Seventy seven percent of people who live with HIV/Aids are cared for by old people, said Klien. In such families the elderly work because when their adult children live with HIV/Aids, they are forced to care for their offspring and re-enter the labour market to earn money to buy medicines.
Caring for others is not the only debilitating fact of life for elderly Thais, who also face health problems related to chronic disease such as diabetes and hypertension. Eighty percent of chronic disease deaths in Asia are among low and middle-income people and deaths, said Klien, are due to increase between 2002 and 2030.
The heavy aroma of medicines fills the air in the Thammapakorn home for the elderly in Chiang Mai. Kiang Kanpan, 89, is painfully thin and complains loudly about the pain in her hips and back. The doctor told her the pain comes from her kidneys. “Sometimes I feel like someone is squeezing my heart,” she said. She is one of 113 old people living there. Suphakarn Unpho, a social worker with the ministry of social development and welfare, said that the elderly living there don’t have any support from their family or are too infirm and frail to live alone.
Kham Bang’s neighbour in the home is Rong Phroa, 67, who tries to sing a song he wrote about his life. It is a sad song. He said he lives alone and tries to weave baskets, even though his right hand is paralysed. He also makes 500 baht a month from the baskets, which is a fraction below the poverty line.
Of Thailand’s 30m workforce, about 9.4m pay into its social security system, said Chantana Boon-Arj, chief of the international affairs’ social security office. In 1998, Thailand initiated a pension scheme that requires members to contribute each month, but nobody will begin to receive pension benefits for several years.
Earning 18 baht per day with no pension, Phroa understands the difficulty of living without a pension as he regularly goes to see a doctor every month. He had a serious motor accident 12 years ago and still has pain, while his two daughters live with their husbands’ families in the city.
“I live alone. Every day my younger brother brings me food,” Phroa said. “I miss my children. They earn money, just enough for their living so they have no money to send to me. They visit me once a year on New Year’s Day. I don’t know about my life for tomorrow, I live day by day.”
Even though elderly people suffer from health problems, poverty and loneliness, they say they have a lot to value. They are the first teachers in their community, said Klien. They are like Bophan Sattitan, 81, the oldest woman in Huay Bong village, Sunsai district, Chiang Mai. She said that she often gives young people advice and is happy to share her experiences that have been drawn from a long life.
She is a necessary and active person in her village. “My work brings me fun and I lead a very active life,” she said.
“Elderly people are a part of society and are very necessary – a productive force. Elderly people can work together and still have the energy to work and be useful contributors to the economy,” said Klien. Furthermore, old people are a significant voting force. “By 2050, people over 60 years of age will account for almost one-third of the voting population in Asia and are a participatory force. They can organise to bring their experiences and wisdom to their communities and be a positive influence.”
They are also coping with the consequences of HIV/Aids in their families as well as playing an active part in their communities. The sharp sounds of finger cymbals and the beat of drums herald a group of 10 women with yellow flowers in their hair who are moving their bodies slowly to the right and then the left. Their arms are pointing one up and one down, following the rhythm of the music.
Wearing a thin white blouse and a smile, Changfong Fumfuey, 72, appears to be carefree as she dances, but behind the smiles and dancing eyes is a personal tragedy. Her remaining two sons have HIV/Aids while the oldest passed away 16 years ago at the age of 41.
Her face becomes sad and tears gather at the corners of her eyes when she talks about her past life. Her oldest son’s condition became serious in 1992 and he died in just four months, because at the time there was no medicine for HIV/Aids sufferers in Thailand.
She said she was also too poor to take him to a doctor. Money that she and her husband earned from selling vegetables was only enough to feed their family.
“My son died in my arms. I didn’t have even enough money. I had to borrow from other people for his funeral. I felt I was going to die, and I was so tired,” said Changfong. “At the time a monk told me to fight the situation and to struggle. But what should I do? How should I do? I don’t know how to deal with my feelings. I sometimes go out walking 5km-6km just to talk to other people. I don’t want to stay alone.”
Her old neighbours kept their distance from her because they knew her eldest son was living with HIV/Aids. “Nobody wanted to see my face and talk to me because maybe they didn’t know what HIV/Aids was. But I ignored them. I just cared for my son,” she said. She tried to explain that people do not get HIV through normal social contact. “If this disease can transmit to other people through eating and sleeping, I may have HIV/Aids from my son,” she explained. She showed her friends her blood test from a doctor, which showed no trace of HIV/Aids.
After her son died she divorced her husband because she knew he had many partners and was afraid he would pass the disease on to her. Not long after their divorce her husband died of Aids.
In 1992 even the local doctors did not know about HIV/Aids, she said. But one day a Christian organisation talked to her. “Can I tell you one thing?” a member of the group asked her. “You can tell me everything. I can accept all,” she replied. She listened, and then she started to understand about HIV/Aids and now often joins seminars about the disease and how to look after people with it. She tries to explain to the villagers about it through her own experience.
However, the shadow of the past always appears in her life. She remembers that one year after her oldest son died, her two younger sons were diagnosed HIV positive and she began the onerous task of caring for them. Before long, though, her life brightened.
In mid-March 1993, she founded a group composed of older people known as “We Love Health” to help elderly people get relief from stress and to increase their incomes. The 10 dancers are members. She said that the club grew from five members to its current roster of about 40.
“Before today my life was terrible. But after I formed a club, my life got better and I feel happy and relaxed,” she said.
For other elderly people in Thailand, loneliness tinged with despair is the main problem. One such victim is 70-year-old Lat Sivichai, who shivers as a breeze rustles the palm tops. “My relatives have never visited me, even my sons,” she said.
Her husband was murdered many years ago and her two sons left her for Bangkok after asking her for 2,000 baht each to find a job in the city. As they left her she recalls them saying: “Don’t worry mother, when we go to Bangkok we will send money to you.” She has not heard from them since.
In about 2004 she told Thai television network TV7 that she didn’t know how to contact her sons. Eventually, she met a friend of her sons and learned that the eldest child had died in a car accident and the younger son had got married.
“I didn’t know my son had died and I didn’t have a chance to attend my son’s wedding because nobody told me,” she said. Then she began to cry bitter tears. Her hands tried to stem the flow, then she said in a whisper: “My son, he maybe forgets me because I am a weak old mother and poor.”