People here living more healthy years

PEOPLE here are not just living longer, but also staying healthy for more years and suffering fewer disability years.

Between 2004 and 2010, life expectancy for men went up by 2.1 years while healthy years rose by 2.7 years.

The change was even greater for women, whose life expectancy rose by two years and healthy years by four years.

Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for Health, told The Straits Times that while life expectancy rose in the past decade, healthy years rose faster.

Dr Khor, who is also on the Ministerial Committee on Ageing, said the trend of more healthy years will continue.

She said: "The question is whether we can turn longevity to our advantage. If we can, the opportunities that come with longevity are tremendous."

Today, Singapore has 4.8 working adults supporting one senior aged 65 or older. By 2030, it will be 2.1 adults to one senior. But this is just a planning tool and should not be taken literally, said Dr Khor, as people do not, at the age of 65, "flip from being a very productive person to being somebody who is dependent".

She said the Government wants to "change the conversation, the perception, about ageing" to turn the longer lives of people here into an advantage.

An ageing population, she said, is not necessarily less dynamic or cohesive: "Older persons can be an engine for national development, contributing to our community, our society and to our economic growth."

Younger people need not worry that encouraging older people to continue working will take away jobs from them, given Singapore's tight labour market, she said.

She added most young people would be happy if their parents and grandparents can remain active and independent longer. It should also assure them that they can remain economically active when they are old.

But she said ageing cannot be denied: "We may be able to delay it, but it is inevitable, and not reversible."

To keep older workers in the workforce, the Government provides grants so that firms can redesign jobs or get equipment that allow seniors to remain productive. Almost 1,600 firms have used these to help more than 35,000 older workers.

One such firm is Yap Sun Hardware in Sims Avenue, where seven of its 11 employees are over 55 years old, with the oldest aged 69.

Part of the work includes cutting stainless steel plates. With a previous machine, workers had to adjust the cutter to the required size, screw the blades in place - which takes strength - and lift the heavy metal sheets to almost shoulder height to be cut.

Owner Low Keng Hoong said it was not only tiring but also resulted in 20 to 30 per cent wastage as the blades could shift during cutting and the size could vary. He had thought of winding down the firm as his workers aged.

But, with the grant paying half the $40,000 for a new hydraulic cutter, he said the cutting task is now a breeze and he is able to deliver on projects faster with no waste.

Dr Khor said the Government hopes other employers can be equally "age blind". "While employers are free to decide who they want to hire or retain, such decisions should be based on the quality of the individual - his skills and experience - rather than on his age."

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