KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia is well on its way to becoming an ageing society by 2030 when it is projected that 15 per cent of its population will be 60 years old and above, according to the Department of Statistics.
With the estimation that 7.2 per cent of the population will be 65 and older by next year, health experts have called for a review of policies to improve the nation’s preparedness for elderly care.
At the moment, efforts on the elderly are being led by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry and Health Ministry.
Professor Datuk Dr Lokman Hakim Sulaiman, a public health expert from International Medical University, said the country did not have adequate health and elderly care facilities to support the growing ageing population.
“Ageing as an issue has been articulated in many ministerial policy and development papers, but I am not sure if we have a single national policy on ageing society to prepare our nation for this transition.
“Also, which ministry or department should champion it? Ageing is beyond a health issue. Social support system, socioeconomic wellbeing, declining productivity and sustainable income and health are interrelated and may work in a vicious cycle.”
He called for a holistic and comprehensive national policy on the elderly that cuts across sectors, enabling the government, society and individuals to understand their roles and responsibilities and act more efficiently in caring for the elderly.
Malaysia adopted the National Policy for the Elderly in 1995 under the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, which ended in 2005. Later, the National Policy for Older Persons came into effect in 2011, complemented by the Health Ministry’s National Health Policy for Older Persons in 2008.
The policies focus on empowering individuals, families and communities by providing elderly-friendly services and enabling environments to improve people’s wellbeing in old age.
The national policies work together under the broader national development plans under the Prime Minister’s Department’s Economic Planning Unit.
Dr Lokman, who is the Health Ministry’s former deputy director-general of public health, however, said more needed to be done and he emphasised the need to determine the framework on the responsibility of elderly care.
“Should the responsibility lie on ourselves as individuals who will grow old, on our family, society, government or a combination of all?
“Based on this foundation, we can develop policies to guide development programmes towards a comprehensive elderly care that covers social, economic and health aspects.
“For example, if we decide it is our responsibility (elderly care), a policy may be developed to pool pensioners’ resources by law to provide support for the elderly once they become dependent.
“If it is societal responsibility, we need policies to allow society to support the elderly in their community,” he said, adding that this could be done through non-governmental organisations and residential homes.
Apart from ensuring well-functioning geriatric medicine services, he said policies that support the wellbeing of the elderly should also be in place with guaranteed access to shelter, food and social support.
“We need a clear policy on immunisation for the elderly, as they are at risk of vaccine-preventable morbidity and mortality, for example, pneumococcal vaccine.”
Dr Lokman said elderly centres must be regulated to ensure quality care that fulfilled social, spiritual and health needs.
“The social support system is disintegrating with rural-urban migration or rapid urbanisation of peri-urban with declining extended families.”
He said individuals in their golden years should keep fit by indulging in physically, socially and mentally-stimulating activities, such as reading, socialising, travelling and gardening.
Malaysian Healthy Ageing Society adviser Professor Nathan Vytialingam said there was an urgent need to address the challenges of an ageing nation through an inter-ministerial approach as it involved issues that were not limited to health and welfare.
“For example, much emphasis has been given to encourage the younger generation to be active in sports, but nobody talks about sports for the elderly.
“They (the elderly) too need to be encouraged to take up sports, with facilities made available for them to keep active.
“I believe the Youth and Sports Ministry can play a big role in this for the elderly.”
Last year, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, at the Ageing, Learning and Technology: Enriching Lives, Connecting Communities Conference held in conjunction with International Day of Older Persons, urged the older generation to remain active.
Dr Mahathir, who is 94 this year, had said if the elderly did not stay active, they would become weak.
To curb loneliness at old age, Nathan said a solid support system should be in place to help the elderly remain mentally active.
“A community centre that allows elderly persons to socialise should be set up in places where community support is lacking, where their children can send them in the morning and pick them up after work.
“These facilities must be well-structured and run by professionals,” he said, adding that more inter-generational activities should be in place to provide social support.
“Such activities can help the elderly look forward to a productive day, with a joyful purpose in life.”
Nathan encouraged private companies and giant corporations to help the elderly.
“Caring for the elderly is not the sole responsibility of the government, but also the community.
“Although often the responsibility is entrusted to the government, big corporations should also look at it as part of their corporate social responsibility programme by providing assistance.”
He said education on healthy ageing should not start at age 60.
“Keeping fit should start from young, not when you have turned 60. This is to allow a person to manage his or her life better and more independently at a later age.
“Many people think only at 60 you are required to exercise more and watch what you eat. Yes, you can do that, but it is much better to start at a much earlier age,” he told the New Sunday Times.
Nathan, who is also Perdana University School of Occupational Therapy dean, said when one gets older, it was important to be able to function normally.
“This includes the ability to dress, go to the toilet and move around without assistance.
“The physical demands of such activities require people to take better care of themselves when they are younger so that they can continue to live independently well into their 60s and beyond.”