Malaysia is fast becoming an aged nation. And it isn't ready.
In 2006, we hit the ageing status and by 2030, we'll be aged.
Lack of care centres for the aged, infrastructure and money are why we're struggling.
Describing the situation as "dire if we do nothing", Employees Provident Fund (EPF) deputy chief executive officer (strategy) Tunku Alizakri Alias says we're ageing before we can reach developed nation status.
The number of youngsters are dropping as the number of seniors soar, he points out.
"Other countries are becoming aged too but they've already developed. Our window period for planning is much shorter.
"Making policies and implementing them takes time. And, you can't save money overnight," he warns, stressing that not enough retirement savings and low financial literacy are big challenges.
Sixty-eight per cent of members aged 54 have savings lower than RM50,000 which can only last five years assuming they spend RM820 per month. The full EPF withdrawal age is 55 but the average life expectancy is 75.
Malaysians must face facts. We're living longer so we must work longer, he says.
"The new poverty line income is RM930. So, how long do you think RM50,000 will last now with rising healthcare costs?" he asks, adding that the price of surgery spiked by about 14 per cent from 2006 to 2013.
He cautioned against withdrawing the EPF early for expenses that don't build assets.
In the old days, investing in your child's education brings returns. Nowadays, it's not a sure thing that they will take care of you, he says, matter of fac"Withdrawing money for investment is also risky because one in 10 new businesses fail."
He believes that financial literacy is the key to facing the challenges of an aged nation.
That's why the EPF launched our Retirement Advisory Service last year.
"We also need a holistic social security master plan. The critical illness insurance penetration is too low here. There must be better coverage for those in the informal sectors.
"We need to get moving now."
He says the lack of retirement products for those in the active ageing (55-70), passive ageing (65-80) and frail (over 80) categories are a major challenge.
Being retirement-ready means having financial security, remaining healthy and leading a happy and meaningful life, he adds. Financial coach Carol Yip, who's pursuing a doctorate in aged care, agrees.
Ready or not, we're ageing fast and in urgent need of care centres, Yip, who's also the Aged Care Group chief executive officer, says.
Aged Care is an organisation providing daycare centres, retirement villages, and nursing homes.
The aged care problem has always been there but has intensified now because of rising costs, changing values, urban migration and smaller families, she says.
"Don't talk about 2020 - we aren't even meeting today's aged care needs!
"In a lot of hospitals, you see seniors occupying the beds because it's cheaper to pay RM80 for 24-hour nursing care plus three hot meals daily than to take them home.
"It's a problem."
The lack of specialised services, care givers and geriatric doctors are challenges needing attention. Also urgent are a legal framework, standard operating procedures and enforcement to manage abuse cases and prevent centres from becoming a dumping ground for abandoned seniors, and aged-friendly infrastructure."We've progressed but not fast enough," she says.
Yip who organised Malaysia's Retirement Transformation Conference in 2010 and Private Pension and Healthcare Conference in 2011, suggests a fourth account be set up by the EPF for aged care.
Allow members to withdraw only at age 65 or 70 because that's usually when you need a high level of care as diseases like dementia or Parkinson set in, she offers.
Explaining why forced saving is a must, she says people still don't know what they need in their old age and can only plan for their first 10 years of retirement.
She also called for the retirement age to be raised to "65 or higher".
She suggests that unit trust and insurance providers be part of the solution.
"Create managed care platforms. Extend medical coverage.
"Have a clause that says: 'If you choose not to do anything, your money will be kept for your aged care needs'.
A system that allows property-owners to sell their place and move into a home easily will facilitate the 'age-in-your-own-township' concept where seniors are integrated into society, she feels.
"Developers must build nursing homes in every township. If there are 1,000 homes, easily 10 per cent of the residents will need aged care."
Here, she says, the thousands of centres offering home care, daycare and long-term stay, are unlicensed.
She said such centres must be purpose built like hospitals and schools.
Most of these homes are converted from bungalows and aren't suitable, she said, adding that average monthly charges range between RM1,800 (S$646) and RM3,000.
Inappropriate placement like sending an independent senior to a home that caters to those who are bedridden or suffering from dementia, often results in consumers paying much more than necessary, she says.
And, it's the middle income, she stresses, who need aged home-care services the most because "we have to go to work and can't afford maids."
If such centres are legalised and run efficiently, competition among operators will bring down prices, she opines.
The Government should give NGOs and the private sector more incentives to get into the aged care business, sh thinks.
"It takes at least three years to build a proper home and get everything in place.
"The Government can help by working with universities and nursing schools to encourage more caregivers to enter the market so that it's easier for us to hire qualified staff."
She feels that having personal data including insurance coverage, assets and savings in a comprehensive online system would allow aged care providers to better assist seniors especially those suffering from dementia.
She said there's an urgent need for the proposed Aged Healthcare Act to regulate private institutions and community care providers for those above 60.
Now, operators claim they are unlicensed because they are confused whether to follow the Care Centre Act 1993 or Private Healthcare Facilities and Services Act 1998.
The aged care industry needs a regulated, integrated framework, because ageing is a social issue. The Government must support the NGOS and private sector, she says.
"And, you and me, must make sure we have saved enough money to afford aged care.
Ageing together: It takes a nation
ThE Government cannot face the challenges of an ageing nation alone, Deputy Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datin Paduka Chew Mei Fun says.
The problem requires a joint effort involving the Government, local councils, developers, insurance companies, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and individuals, she says.
"Everybody must be responsible and do their part," she insists.
Giving an example, she says developers should plan townships for senior citizens to grow old within the community "like one big family".
She says local councils also play a very important role in ensuring that the roads and buildings are accessible to the elderly.
To encourage collaborations between the NGOs, the Government gives incentives to corporations to run corporate social responsibility projects, she says.
She says individuals have to plan for old age by keeping healthy and active and saving for their future needs.
On plans to build more homes to accommodate the growing number of seniors, she says the ministry hopes to de-institutionalise homes because a family environment is always better.
However, legislation forcing grown children to care for their parents, is "not the way", she stressed.
She says cultivating values like filial piety by stressing on the importance of family bonds through education, is preferable.
"We have nine (registered) old folks homes nationwide with a total of 1,590 residents.
"And, there are an additional two homes housing more than 200 bedridden residents, 70 per cent of whom are above age 60.
"If we accept residents too easily, some will just send them to us because it's convenient," she says, adding that five activity centres for seniors will be built in addition to the existing 45 nationwide. The number will be increased steadily.
She says 'caring complexes' housing both seniors and orphans are in the pipeline.
"The idea is for kids to cheer up the seniors while learning from their elders," she says.
She says better health services have led to Malaysians living longer with couples now having to care for their children, parents and grandparents.
Acknowledging that it's a huge financial burden, she says the ministry is trying to educate young couples on how to better plan for their family
Explaining that family planning isn't just about birth control, she says it entails managing family finances.
"We're not asking couples to give birth blindly but if you can afford to, you should have more children," she says.
On June 14, Sunday Star front paged how urban parents can expect to pay as much as the combined price of a luxury car and a semi-detached house to raise a child up to degree level.
The report followed a remark by Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim urging Malaysians to have more kids to address the projected shrinking population.
National Council of Senior Citizens Organisations Malaysia president Datuk Dr Soon Ting Kueh is "very disappointed" that the country's seniors were left out of both the 10th and 11th Malaysia Plan, lamenting that the elderly are a neglected lot.
"There is no social security for the old," he points out.
Calling for a national forum to be held fast, he cautions that the country may reach aged nation status even before 2030.
"Everyone will grow old. The only question is when.
"We must tackle these challenges together but the Government has to spearhead the solution with a detailed development plan."
While supportive of the Government's call for couples to have more kids, he feels that it won't solve the problem.
Suggesting a private pension fund be set up, he says it will ease the financial burden on families caring for their old parents while giving the seniors a sense of independence.
Seniors who are poor and without family must be cared for by the Government, he insists.
"There aren't enough government old folk homes nationwide," he says.
"We need at least 90 but we don't even have one per state."
Those who can afford private nursing homes are also suffering, he says.
He estimates there are some 4,000 private centres nationwide but only slightly more than 200 are regulated.
"Some pay between RM500 and RM600 to live in very poor conditions where seniors are hosed down instead of getting a proper bath.
"These unlicensed homes are stinky and the living conditions very undignified," he says.
He feels that country's healthcare system also needs to be improved.
"The waiting time is too long and there are not many geriatric doctors.
"The seniors will be dead by the time they get treatment," he says, only half-in-jest.
But, he stresses, the seniors themselves must grow old with dignity by keeping active.
Soon's deputy, Susan Suah, says there's a need for aged-friendly housing.
The interior designer is working to come up with building guidelines. Some problems in current housing include the lack of bathrooms on the ground floor, switches that are too high up and poor lighting, she says.
"We have rooms for maids but not for old parents?,"she says adding that aged-friendly homes must be made mandatory.
Universiti Sains Malaysia (School of Social Sciences) associate professor Dr Saidatulakmal Mohd notes that while some supermarkets and shopping centres have started becoming aged-friendly, none of the new housing developments are.It's worse when residential houses are converted into nursing homes for the elderly as it has been proven to be non-conducive to their wellbeing.
"We don't need to wait until Malaysia becomes an aged society. Many of the elderly are already being abandoned and abused, she says.
"While it's easy to point to the Government for a solution, it's important to note that welfare aid for seniors has risen over the years."
To cover rising public healthcare costs, she anticipates higher taxes for the future generation.
But unlike their parents, youngsters today don't expect their children to care for them in their old age.
"This is because they are facing financial hardship providing for their family while supporting their aged parents and don't want their children to go through the same thing," she explains.
She calls on the Ministry of Women, Family and Community to bring back the 'elderly in the community' initiative to promote active ageing.
To be a developed nation by 2020, we need active seniors who can contribute to the nation but this is only possible if aged-friendly infrastructure is ready and the elderly are financially supported.
"In the UK, I saw seniors shopping for groceries, paying their own bills and eating out - which is rare here.
"In Malaysia, seniors are seen as 'abandoned' if they do these things themselves.
"The perception needs to change."