State support for retirement is about meeting basic needs

Recent discussion about state support for retirement has led to concerns that society may incur a tax burden to create a "culture of helplessness" ("Extend helping hand, not handouts, to retirees" by Dr Patrick Liew Siow Gian; Monday).

However, this characterisation misses the pressing phenomenon of impoverishment in old age.

To impoverished older people, retirement is an unaffordable luxury. State support is needed not to enable optional leisure, but to meet basic needs.

Our qualitative research has found that for many impoverished older women, financial inadequacy results from unpaid care work taken on earlier in life - labour they sometimes carry on into old age if they remain caregivers, for instance, of children with disabilities. Women's longer lifespans can make this a particularly serious issue.

Unpaid caregiving for family members - children, siblings or parents - entails a loss in income and savings.

This unrewarded work goes unreflected in these women's retirement finances, even though this labour is a key component of social investment, especially in the next generation.

It is not merely equitable that the society which benefits from this unpaid labour helps to sustain it through state support, but it is also a prudent investment in the longer-term sustainability of care.

Inadequately supported caregivers experience multiple pressures and reduced well-being.

This can increase the risk of ill treatment of care recipients. Family relationships can implode under the strain. Older people's physical and mental well-being also deteriorates without necessary care, for example because their finances do not permit timely preventative healthcare.

Rather than providing costly assistance to deal with the consequences of inadequate care, it makes economic sense to provide early support to both elderly care recipients and caregivers, through state investment in the homecare and primary healthcare sectors.

Finally, we are concerned that the conditions for the impoverishment of older women are being replicated in younger cohorts. Last year, of the 273,000 women outside the labour force because of "family responsibilities", 147,000 were aged 25 to 54.

Because care pressures remain gendered, the issue of elderly women's impoverishment is not going to disappear simply because of inter-generational advances in women's education.

It is thus prudent to seriously consider support for caregivers to prevent them from ageing into impoverishment.

Chong Ning Qian (Ms)

Research Executive

Association of Women for Action and Research

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 24, 2016, with the headline 'State support for retirement is about meeting basic needs'. Print Edition | Subscribe