Singapore society is undergoing rapid change. Several social trends in particular - such as the rising number of unmarried adults, increase in percentage of the elderly living alone or as couples, the rise in divorce rates and the unmet needs of family caregivers - come together in a way that should make us question if the existing social compact needs revisiting, especially the presumption that the family is the first recourse to caregiving for the elderly.
The idea of a social compact between government and people was articulated eloquently in 2001, by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. He emphasised that this "enduring social compact" ensures each and every person would be given equal and maximum opportunity to progress and there would be a social safety net for the minority who could not cope. The notion of every individual maximising his or her potential, with a minimal safety net for the hapless minority, has remained the mainstay in Singapore.
But evolving family structures, work demands and prevalence rates of diseases such as dementia have added to changing dynamics and family pressures.
External factors such as rising inflation, increasing global economic competition and labour migration have also played a part, increasing insecurities faced by Singapore residents. In the face of all these demographic, economic, social and global shifts, existing policies have to be revisited for their relevance to contemporary challenges.
The repercussions of an ageing society are felt in every sector.
Within the family, having an ageing elderly member means conversations relating to healthcare and caregiving. Also, end-of-life, legal and financial issues, become urgent and important, and potentially areas of stress and conflict. This is true even if the elderly family member does not reside in the same household. In fact, the caregiving issue may then become even more important.
In the past, having an elderly person in the family was considered comparable to having a "treasure". But today, with rising medical costs and longer life expectancy, people's perceptions have changed. Filial values may still be in existence but other challenges that the family faces, such as making ends meet and paying for children's education, may cause apprehension and anxiety to set in.
Outside the family, the effects of an ageing population on the workplace are clearly visible. The younger workforce is shrinking. Meanwhile, we are likely to observe a larger proportion of people aged above 62 remaining at the workplace, due to the re-employment and retirement age policies as well as the financial needs of seniors.
Age management policies - policies to integrate mature employees in a multi-generational workforce - will have to be embraced by human resource professionals .
In the community, silver-haired volunteers are noticeable. They may be grassroots leaders, "health ambassadors", befrienders, elder-sitters or leaders of ethnic/religious organisations. Seniors prefer to "age-in-place" so when they are retired, or semi-retired, this is a fulfilling way to spend their time in meaningful activities. Active elderly grandparents are often child-minding their grandchildren or chauffeuring them from one extra-curricular activity to the next, while their adult children are busy working.
There are many examples of public servants who still contribute after they are well into their 60s and beyond; and many writers, artists and social workers have won national recognition after they entered their retirement years.
In 2015, Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Tharman Shanmugaratnam stated in his opening speech at the International Consortium of Social Development held at SIM University: "Our whole approach must be to empower people and empower aspirations. Never leaving people to fend for themselves, but keeping that compact of personal and collective responsibility alive." DPM's reference to "collective responsibility" is evidence of a more inclusive approach that the Government is adopting.
When it comes to care of the vulnerable elderly, families need more support than what they are getting now. If their needs are not met, those who are better off may hire foreign domestic helpers; however, the lower-middle-class and lower-income families face a myriad of insurmountable financial and psychological stresses.
It is urgent for the Government to revisit some policies relating to caregiving and family.
For example, it should consider a caregiver's allowance to alleviate the financial hardship of families where one member has to quit his or her job to care for a frail loved one. Parental care leave should also be mandated for all sectors of the workforce to let adult children care better for their parents. And more resources need to be pumped into building up our community health and social services and programmes.
Gerontological training should be a requirement for centre managers and professionals who are assigned to look after the elderly in senior daycare centres, integrated multi-service centres and senior activity centres. If they are not aware of the psycho social and health aspects of the ageing process, would they be able to carry out their tasks competently?
As strains on the family increase, policymakers may need to look beyond the family, and to the community as the main line of defence for the future.
Involving the community goes beyond co-locating services and programmes in a geographical vicinity.
Involving the community will mean tapping resources around an area or around networks that grow organically, and harnessing them to improve the lives of seniors. One good example is social enterprise The Social Iron that matches seniors, with time on their hands, with professionals who need ironing services. Other examples include harnessing elderly volunteers to befriend the vulnerable aged sick.
A sense of community grows from policies that recognise the efforts of community members in a reciprocal exchange of services, mutual help between people of different ethnic groups, gestures of kindness towards adults with disability, as well as daily routines of caregivers that may affect their work patterns. The community includes the workplace, the grassroots and recreational spaces.
The family is important but in the context of Singapore's ageing society, we need a multi-pillared approach to supporting our ageing population. The state, community, family and individual should form a new social compact where all pillars are equally important and irreplaceable.
The writer is head of the gerontology graduate programme at Singapore University of Social Sciences.
This article is adapted from a chapter written by Professor Mehta for the book The Heart Of Learning (2017) published by the Singapore University of Social Sciences.
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