Thailand's elderly punch away fears about greying society

Old fiddles play the best tunes, goes the saying. Surasak Siripojjanakul, a 75-year-old tai chi coach at Lumpini Park, and Amra Mahasnop, 71, head of the Poochao Samingprai dancing club in Samut Prakan, are prime examples of the many older folk still playing an instrumental role in energising the communities around them.

Every morning, Surasak gathers with other members of the Xiang Leng club to practise the ancient Chinese martial art of tai chi at the city park. Taking his place at the front, he leads the group through slow, elegant moves that channel the strength and grace of animals and nature.

He notes that many people suffer bad health as they get older because they don't exercise regularly.

"Most of our members are seniors, and they all have their own health problems. Practising tai chi keeps them healthy," he says.

"Doing the moves strengthens your core and your legs, meaning you don't fall easily. Even though the movements look gentle, they can be used for defence because this is actually a martial art."

He adds that the club doesn't just help the elderly get more active, it is also improves their social lives.

"After practising tai chi, we usually take a break, have a cup of coffee and chat among ourselves. This is how people our age should spend their time, being happy and healthy," he says.

He puts his own youthful looks and good health down to a regimen of daily tai chi plus a healthy diet.

"I've been practising tai chi for more than 40 years, and will continue coaching," he adds.

The Xiang Leng club has been offering tai chi and Chinese singing classes for more than 30 years. It now has around 1,000 members, making it one of the country's largest clubs for older folk.

On Bangkok's outskirts, Amra reveals an alternative secret to staying youthful.

"I launched the ballroom-dancing club in 2012 because I thought veterans like me needed an activity that was suited to their age. With dancing, we can relax and exercise at the same time," she explains.

The club is popular and draws members from well beyond the Poochao Samingprai Municipality.

"As well as ballroom-dancing sessions every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, we host yoga and aerobics classes on other days. This way, club members and guests have a chance to exercise every day," she says, adding that she organises all the activities herself.

Asked if the packed schedule tires her out, she says it's quite the opposite: Life at the club boosts her mood.

"I used to be a teacher, so I love working with people and doing something useful for the community. I don't want to be alone at home doing nothing," she says.

The club also offers seniors the chance to socialise.

"The club doesn't just bring together older members of the community to exercise, it also gives them a chance to keep up with friends. It helps keep them in good physical and mental health," she says. "We are also working with government agencies to improve seniors' quality of life through several projects."

Surasak and Amra are far from being the only senior citizens who devote themselves to "putting something back". Some 16,000 retirees work in HM the Queen's "Senior Wisdom" project, established in 2005 as a way of passing knowledge on to the younger generation.

Amid news of the problems Thailand will face as its population ages, seniors across the land are proving that there is an upside.

The United Nations points out that dropping birth rates and longer life-spans mean many ASEAN member countries are ageing fast. In just 20 years' time, Thailand's will be the second-"oldest" society in Southeast Asia after Singapore, with 15.6 million people (23.39 per cent) over 65.

But preparations are under way to meet the needs of this "grey" army.

"We have more than 20,000 clubs for older citizens," says Rarinthip Sirorat, director general of the Welfare Promotion, Protection and Empowerment of Vulnerable Groups Office.

"Our intention is to ensure our older folk have good welfare benefits. We also urge everyone to appreciate that older people have valuable wisdom and knowledge to impart. We need to take care of them."