Not enough appears to be being done to provide for the physical and spirituals needs of Vietnam's senior citizens
With life expectancy rising 1.5 times faster than many other countries, Vietnam now has one of the most rapidly aging populations in the world, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Although more social welfare policies are being adopted for the elderly, many of their physical and spiritual needs are being given inadequate attention.
With some 10 per cent of people being over 60 years of age and 7 per cent of those being over 65, the number of elderly people in Vietnam is growing fast and many, many more will reach their golden years over the next two decades.
Health is the greatest concern for most elderly people, as they are more prone to illness as their bodies age. There are government policies in place for the elderly, such as social and health insurance and allowances and free health checks. The number of elderly people benefiting from such policies, however, remains modest, at around 20 per cent - mostly those living alone with no relatives or receiving no care from relatives, according to Professor Hoang Moc Lan from the Psychology Department at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities. Free health checks and treatment are difficult for the elderly to access, especially in remote regions, due to budget restrictions and a general absence of public healthcare services.
Not only public healthcare services but also private medical centres and nutritional products for the elderly seem limited. Many enterprises in the healthcare sector do not invest in this large market, so the need for healthcare products and services of Vietnam’s older citizens remains largely unmet, according to recent finding by Nielsen, the global market research company. Forty-four per cent of Vietnamese consumers surveyed said they never see advertising targeting older consumers, 43 per cent (when thinking about the product or service needs of aging consumers), would have trouble locating foods that meet their special nutritional needs, and 41 per cent could not find easy-to-read product labels. More than 30 per cent believe stores are not catering to the needs of older consumers by providing aisles dedicated to relevant products or providing modified bathrooms.
Yet nutritional supplements and private healthcare services for the elderly are actually available in Vietnam. Like those of Abbott, whose successful categories are familiar to many local people, such as “Ensure” adult nutritional supplements, “Glucerna” for diabetes, and “ProSure” for oncology. Besides a few prestigious brands, the price of these products and services are still high compared to the spending power of the older generation. “My monthly pension just doesn’t allow me to frequently buy these products,” said Ms Hong Hanh, a 70-year-old retired teacher. “My daughter buys them for me, but sometimes she is too busy or forgets.”
Spiritual health is just as important as physical health, as a healthy spirit helps the elderly to enjoy life while poor spirits can lead to physical illness, according to Professor Lan.
After retirement, many elderly people that were sound in both body and soul become easily bored and experience dark moods. Some may suffer depression from feelings of being “useless” and are concerned about being a burden for their family members and friends. For the majority of respondents in the Nielsen survey, being a burden on family members or friends is their greatest concern when it comes to aging (70 per cent). Other concerns that keep them awake at night are losing the ability to care for their own basic needs (feeding, bathing, dressing), losing their mental and physical agility, and being abandoned and left alone.
Therefore, helping elderly people maintain a healthy and happy mind is very important, according to Professor Lan. Elderly people wish to continue contributing to society and giving them a job is one of the most effective ways they can do so. “This helps them feel confident about their ‘usefulness’, rather than feeling as if they are a burden,” she said. But there are few companies or organisations recruiting people passed working age, so many elderly people create their own employment.
Fed up with having so much free time since retiring, Mrs Quynh Nga decided to open a grocery at her home. Her earnings may be negligible but that’s not the point. Her work makes her happy and keeps her active, she said. Similarly, Mrs Ngoc Minh said she found an interest in planting vegetables, as it helps her to not only fill in her days but also provides fresh food for her family dinners.
But not all elderly are active or able to find a job like Mrs Nga and Mrs Minh. The younger generation should create jobs for their elderly family members, like helping with the housework and cooking or taking care of children, according to Professor Lan.
Entertainment is also an important need among the elderly, particularly to ward off loneliness. Families with three generations under the one roof is still common in Vietnam but relationships among family members, particularly between the young and the old, are gradually loosening. “Different from many in Western countries, elderly Asians don’t want to be sent to a retirement home,” Professor Lan said. “Living with their descendants and being cared for by them is the greatest happiness an elderly person can have. But busy life, particularly in large cities, is taking away this happiness. Younger people today are consumed by their careers, and the elderly can feel alone even when they still live with their family.”
By way of example, 78-year-old Quang Hung said that he really wants to listen to his son and his granddaughter talk about their day at the office or at school when they got home, as he used to do with his grandfather when he was young. But, after dinner, they entertain themselves with their mobile phones or tablets, so he has little choice but to watch TV or go to bed early.
Anyone living with loneliness for too long will become susceptible to mental health issues, according to Professor Lan. She recommends people spend more time talking with their parents and grandparents and help them to find ways to stay happy. In Vietnam, though, TV shows, newspapers and entertainment for the elderly are very much limited. But there are a diverse range of clubs they can join, set up by other elderly people. Mr Hung said after joining such a club his life became more colourful. Taking physical exercise every morning, playing chess and other sports like badminton, table tennis and cycling, or practising singing and reciting poetry for small performances give him and his elderly friends the opportunity to not only stay healthy but also have a good time together.