Give priority to senior citizens

GLOBALLY, there is a growing elderly population due to increased life expectancy and declining birth rates. According to data from the United Nations, the number of adults aged 60 and above is expected to more than double by 2050.

Malaysia will be facing an ageing population too. By 2040, about one in five Malaysians will be senior citizens.

With a general election around the corner, one may see pictures in the newspapers of politicians and their wives visiting old folks' homes and feeding ailing or bedridden residents. Certainly, these actions matter. But a better yardstick of the politicians' commitment to the welfare of senior citizens is the availability of facilities and amenities to enable the elderly to have independent, comfortable and happy lives.

Senior citizens have played important roles in both private and public spheres, contributing to raising families and also to the building of the nation. As such, care of the elderly should be our priority.

The good news is that the National Social Council is tasked with ensuring greater care for senior citizens. The Physical Planning Guidelines for the Elderly is being drafted by the Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Ministry. In addition, the soon-to-be-tabled Aged Healthcare Bill by the Health Ministry will help ensure that retirement or nursing homes are properly equipped and run.

An ageing population is an issue both of public policy and city planning. While some of the proposed programmes and guidelines offer good policy suggestions, city officials and planners can work together to create a built environment better suited for elderly residents.

There is a growing demand for retirement villages and nursing homes. Government agencies, local authorities, developers, private companies and non-governmental organisations should work hand in hand to prepare suitable and safe homes for senior citizens.

Currently, public facilities and amenities for the elderly are woefully inadequate and badly maintained. Our cities are still not senior citizen friendly. There are too few places that promote and make it easy for mobile senior citizens to get out of their houses to be active.

As most of them have time on their hands, the lack of public places to exercise or gather can be depressing and boring.

There should be more community centres, equipped with reading rooms with books, magazines and newspapers in both printed and electronic forms, kitchen areas for shared food preparation and open spaces with sitting areas and shade, close to residential neighbourhoods and city centres. In addition, government-supported arts and crafts courses can be introduced for those who are interested. This can prevent social isolation.

Mobility and access is another important issue. Cities should make sure that regulations to help people with canes or wheelchairs move from place to place, sometimes called universal design, are strengthened and enforced. There should be well-designed, efficient walkways and pavements to walk to nearby shops and parks.

Cities should also create walking and hiking trails with intermittent rest areas along scenic places, such as river banks, seaside and rolling hills, taking into consideration the climatic conditions. These will encourage senior citizens to have an active outdoor life.

Another basic facility to maintain an active life is efficient public transport. This is essential in view of the fact that many senior citizens do not own cars or have the confidence to drive them. The buses and trains should also cater to the special needs of passengers to board with ease.

Senior citizens might expect to live 15 to 20 years after their retirement. The current trend is for many of them to live with their spouses or live alone.

Having proper access to services, recreation, and other aspects of daily life would enable them to lead independent and fulfilling lives. Furthermore, healthy senior citizens take the pressure off public health facilities.

More funds should be channelled not only towards healthcare and social benefit programmes for the elderly, but also to building or improving facilities. After all, what is good for senior citizens is generally good for other people too.

Perhaps less obviously, better facilities also encourage foreigners who opt to retire here.

Malaysia, especially Penang, has been ranked as one of the top retirement destinations in the world. This will also benefit the Malaysia My Second Home Programme (MM2H) allowing entrepreneurs and retirees from all over the world to live or retire on a long-term basis.

A society is often judged on how well it treats its most vulnerable members. We should make every effort to establish a caring society in which the elderly are active, content and dignified.

Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is interested in urban governance, housing and urban planning. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com