Published in The Myanmar Times on 2 April 2013

A man in Mawlamyine, Mon State.

A man in Mawlamyine, Mon State.

Most older people in Myanmar are economically active but live on less than US$3 a day, a report published by HelpAge International last month has found.

Most people 60 and over rely on their children for at least some support but the report warns that changing demographics and lifestyles could put this means of support “under strain”.

The report, The Situation of Older Persons in Myanmar, is the first comprehensive study of older people in Myanmar in decades and involved face-to-face interviews with 4080 people from all states and regions in Myanmar except Kachin State.

Non-government organisation HelpAge International received support from the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement to conduct the survey. The United Nations Population Fund provided long-term demographic projections about Myanmar’s rapidly ageing population.

The report says that by 2050, a quarter of Myanmar’s population will be aged 60 years or older. Older people account for about 9pc of the country’s estimated population of 60 million, a figure that has “virtually quadrupled over the past 60 years”. However Myanmar still has one of the lowest life expectancy rates in the region, the Asian Development Bank says.

UN projections found that persons aged 60 and older will outnumber children under the age of 15 by 2035.

The study covers demographic trends, social characteristics, economic activity, living arrangements, material wellbeing, health and family support.

It found that “even by the standards of Southeast Asia, older people in Myanmar remain exceptionally close to their families”.

More than three quarters of the people interviewed live with at least one of their children and 50pc also live with a grandchild. Among older people with adult children, 95pc have at least one child living in the same village or ward.

“[F]ew older persons in Myanmar are isolated from family and in general are socially integrated with their children and their kin … and are thus able to potentially benefit from exchanges of material and emotional support,” it said.

Mon State

Mon State

As only 10pc of older people have a telephone, people living significant distances apart from their children and other relatives have only limited ability to maintain contact.

All respondents said they receive either money or goods from their children, with adult children being the main source of support for about 60pc of older people.

However, almost a quarter of older people reported that “income from their own or their spouse’s work was still their main source of support”.

The study also found that support is reciprocal: more than 50pc of respondents who live with children provide economic support to the household, with the same proportion providing care for grandchildren.

However, the report notes that fertility rates in Myanmar have already fallen to two children per woman and predicts that “dramatically shrinking family sizes and increasing urban migration … will soon put these traditional means of support under strain.”

As pensions are “very rare” and virtually none of the respondents receive any type of welfare support from government or non-government agencies, nearly a quarter of people aged between 70 and 74 are economically active, with 60pc working in agriculture.

“Men are twice as likely as women to remain economically active, and older people in rural areas remain economically active longer than their urban counterparts,” says the report.

However, nearly half of Myanmar’s older population described their income as inadequate for meeting daily needs – almost 10pc of households have a daily income of less than $1 a day. Less than one in five older persons has savings and older people are twice as likely to have debts as savings.

A third of the older people interviewed said they live in homes without electricity, while 58pc lack access to running water. About a third has neither a radio nor television.

Along with low standards of material wealth, only a third of older people interviewed finished primary school.

“Only about half of older persons are fully literate, with women particularly likely to lack literacy.”

One finding that appears independent of demographics is religious faith. Three-quarters of respondents pray or meditate daily and 95pc do so at least once a month.

Just a third of older people in Myanmar say that their health is good or very good. Although most of those who sought medical treatment in 2012 received it, a quarter of respondents said they couldn’t afford the healthcare they felt they needed.

U Aung Tun Khaing, chair of the Elderly Project Advisory Committee at the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, said the findings will significantly contribute to future national planning on elderly care.

“With the information documented in this report we will be able to develop informed policies and implement plans for elderly care services to fill in the gaps wherever needed,” he said in a statement released by HelpAge.

HelpAge has worked in Myanmar since 2003 and drafted a National Action Plan on Ageing, which U Aung Tun Khaing said could be approved in the 2013-14 financial year, which begins on April 1.

The plan seeks to introduce a pension program, discounted transportation fares, low interest loans and subsidised health care for the elderly.