Published in IRIN News on 18 February 2014

An elderly woman at the Home for the Aged Poor in Yangon

An elderly woman at the Home for the Aged Poor in Yangon

Increasing economic migration is straining families in Myanmar, leaving the elderly to care for grandchildren as their own health diminishes, according to NGO HelpAge International, which warns this phenomenon will intensify in the coming years as migration increases.

A “skip generation” – households with older people living only with grandchildren – is emerging, and places a double burden on older people struggling to care for themselves.

In 2013 HelpAge, with support from the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), carried out the country’s first comprehensive study on the elderly population in decades, which found that people over 60 accounted for about 9 percent of Myanmar’s estimated population of 60 million, a figure that had “virtually quadrupled over the past 60 years”.

But these are only estimates, and “need to be replaced with accurate information and it is a census which can help validate this,” said Janet Jackson, UNFPA’s Myanmar representative, in reference to the upcoming census in March and April this year – the first for more than 30 years.

“The number of elderly people is increasing steadily in Myanmar, but no one knows how many there are. This means that planning for them in terms of policy or services is not easy,” Jackson added.

By 2050, older people are expected to form a quarter of the population, a huge challenge for a nation that does not yet have a policy on elderly care.

Sister Mary Andrews is pictured on the left

Sister Mary Andrews is pictured on the left

With no pension system in place, more than half of people aged 60 or over in Myanmar are still economically active, while a quarter of those aged 70 to 74 are still working, mostly in agriculture.

A third of the roughly 4,000 elderly people the NGO interviewed reported a lack of electricity, while almost 60 percent had no running water. A quarter of the survey’s respondents said they had not been able to afford health care in 2012. Half are illiterate, with a disproportionate number being women.

The “skip generation”

Even by Southeast Asian standards, the elderly in Myanmar are “exceptionally” close to their families, noted HelpAge.

“Economic migration is becoming an increasingly important issue. We’ve found that as many as 70 percent of households in villages in Kayin and Mon states have a child living in bordering Thailand or an urban hub in Myanmar. Many parents aren’t sending any money home and as the grandparents start to struggle with their own health and mental health issues, it’s having an impact on [grand]children,” Tapan Barman, country director of HelpAge, told IRIN.

A resident of Home for the Aged Poor

A resident of Home for the Aged Poor

“In Hpa-An Township [in Kayin State], I was struck by the huge extent of migration… Virtually every older person said they had at least one child working in Thailand,” Peter Morrison, HelpAge’s regional programme manager, said.

According to Sister Mary Andrew at the Home for Aged Poor in Yangon which cares for 134 older people, cases of children abandoning their parents are relatively common.

“We find some [older people] on the street, whereas others come knocking on the door, saying, ‘I have no shelter or food and no one to take care of me.’ Others have families, but the children don’t want to care for them. We’ve taken in many older people whose children have gone abroad, left their parents and never come back for them,” she told IRIN.

She added that there is now a waiting list as the home has reached maximum capacity and funding from private donors decreased dramatically following Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

“Myanmar’s traditional social support system, whether it be a church, pagoda or mosque, fills the gap – to some extent. But if you ask older people, most will say that they don’t want to leave their villages and live in an institution,” Barman added.

Costly legislation

Although a National Action Plan on Ageing was expected to be approved during the 2013-14 financial year, Barman said it was delayed due to a ministerial shuffle.

“Unlike Thailand, which began the process [of introducing pensions] about 30 years ago, Myanmar was a closed country for so long and social protection is completely new to the government. It wasn’t until last year that there was any interest in the idea,” Barman said.

Aung Tun Khaing, deputy director-general of the Ministry of Social Welfare, told IRIN parliament is “likely” to approve a plan by the end of 2014.

An ageing policy, and implementation legislation, is expected to follow the action plan, which will set up a pension system and subsidized health care. The law (HelpAge will advise on drafting) is expected to contain a section on gender equity, said Barman, which aims to prevent discrimination against women in land ownership and employment.

“A universal pension isn’t affordable at this stage. The government has so many other priorities and the health sector is weak. It will need to be introduced in phases – for example, by covering those above 80. In The Philippines, the pension is really small. But it helps – something is better than nothing,” Barman concluded.