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Growing old: the plight of the elderly

Growing old: the plight of the elderly



n old Khmer saying has it that: "A parent can feed ten children, but ten

children can't feed their parent."

Seventy-eight-year-old Moeun Son doesn't mind that his six children cannot feed him

despite a constitutional requirement that they do so; they have their own to care

for, he reasons.

Son began his career as a cyclo driver aged 20, when the Japanese entered Cambodia.

He rents his battered cyclo for 1,500 riel a day, and saves between 3-4,000. Once

a month he goes home to Kampong Cham to visit his family.

"They give me money and food every year, but the food is not enough, so I have

to come here to ride a cyclo," he says. When might he stop peddling and retire?

"I will stop when I can no longer move."

Son's capacity for work in his eighth decade springs from necessity rather than a

love of ferrying people around the capital. Old age is a trying time for Cambodians;

as in most developing countries, there are few resources available.

While hardship among the elderly is common anywhere, Cambodia's Khmer Rouge past

still afflicts the present. One consequence is that the Kingdom's demographics are

skewed towards the young; another is that old age is no longer regarded as reverently

as it once was, particularly in urban areas.

In May 1998, the Ministry of Social Affairs (MoSALVY) and HelpAge International,

a British NGO, published the first, and to date only, report examining the lives

of Cambodia's elderly.

The Situation of Older People in Cambodia, defined 'older' as 55 years and above.

Most of the people told the researchers that the biggest problem facing them was

making a living. Other than work, many rely on support from their children, as well

as help from neighbors and their community. A fraction live on personal savings.

The main source of support for the elderly is themselves, followed by their children.

Those who lack the strength to work and have no children rely entirely on charity,

a dismal strategy in a country where more than one-third of the population lives

under the poverty line.

Seventy-seven-year-old Ven Rin knows the hardships of old age and poverty. She gives

a gummy smile and puts together her betel-stained fingers asking for money.

Rin lives in Phnom Penh's Wat Botum. Starting at 6am, she sweeps away the rubbish

at the temple, then goes out until six or seven at night to earn whatever she can.

If she is lucky she will come back with 2,000 riel.

"I used to work as a dishwasher," says Rin, "but by 2000 I had no

more energy. I couldn't work any more so I came here to beg to make my living."

She has no close relatives: her husband and two children were killed by the Khmer


"We lived very painfully during the Khmer Rouge times," she says. "Now

I live patiently waiting for death."

The situation of those like Rin is not helped by the fact that most development is

concentrated on younger Cambodians who form the majority of the population.

In a country that boasts around 1,000 NGOs, only two - HelpAge International and

the Cambodian Association for the Elderly (CAE) - concentrate exclusively on the

interests of old people.

Dr Khun Ngeth, president of CAE, says that the Khmer Rouge caused enormous damage

to the nation's culture.

"When I was a youth I respected my elders," he says. "But now the

youth don't take care of them."

Nagasayee Malathy, country head of HelpAge, agrees.

"Traditionally there was respect for the elderly. It was the older people who

took care of the family," she says. "That was wiped out during the Pol

Pot period. We have been trying to revive that among the younger generation."

The lack of help means many elderly citizens live in pagodas. While old women will

often become nuns to serve the temple's monks, other men and women end up in the

country's numerous wats because they have no other means to support themselves.

"Either the elderly stay with their families or they stay in pagodas,"

says Ngeth. "Pagodas in Cambodia should always be [welcoming] as a second home

for the elderly."

At Wat Unalom in Phnom Penh, 82-year-old senior monk Em Iem is familiar on more than

a personal level with the problems of aging.

"Twenty elderly people live in our pagoda," says Em Iem "They cook

rice and boil water and are given food. I feel for them because they have no one

else to help them."

Finding enough to eat is only

one of the difficulties, as a HelpAge conference held in September 2001 heard. The

NGO invited old people from around the country and learned that the topic that generated

more heat than any other was health.

Participants told the organizers that the government and NGOs should focus on providing

them with free healthcare. The NGO states that it is common in Cambodia for older

people to ignore their health problems to avoid hefty expenses.

"In most cases they or their children simply do not have any money to pay for

the treatment," it states.

One participant told the gathering: "When our children get sick and we go to

ask for support, no one pays attention to us except the poor. It is only the poor

who will help the poor."

On Phnom Penh's riverfront, 75-year-old widow Nhek Soth has her own health problem.

She calls it "Venom", a rash across her back that has crept around her

abdomen and which she has endured for six years.

"It's no longer spreading," she says, "but it causes me sharp pain."

Treatment is a 500 riel tablet bought from a nearby pharmacy. The price is one-quarter

of her earnings from begging. According to HelpAge, the money spent on medical treatment

typically comes second only to that spent on food.

"The high cost of healthcare puts a special burden on old people who depend

on their children," states a HelpAge report. "Illness may also force older

people who are poor to choose between risking their family's livelihood by selling

... cows or land ... or going without treatment."

Although the two elderly associations operating here have similar aims, their methods

differ. CAE focuses on donating necessities, says Ngeth, and has opened two old age

homes, a rarity in Cambodia.

Malathy says HelpAge's priority is to build capacity in local organizations. That

proved impossible in Cambodia, as local associations for the elderly simply do not

exist. The NGO has instead been forced to set them up itself.

HelpAge has set up 55 local associations in Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces.

Old people meet to discuss their needs and problems, says Malathy, then use the strength

that comes with numbers to get what they need.

The lack of formal structures to help the elderly is so widespread that there will

be room for both approaches for years to come. CAE's Ngeth would like to see Cambodians

mobilizing people outside the country to provide practical aid.

"I would like it if all our elderly could get assistance such as spectacles

and medicine [from overseas]. They need the help," he says.

The government is aware of the difficulties facing old people, says Touch Samon,

director general of MoSALVY. It is working to "study the needs of the elderly

in the community" and "prepare a briefing of principles of economy and


"In general Cambodia's elderly receive respect and care from their children

and relatives in the community," says Samon. "Disabled and old people [without

help] receive support from the community, especially from the pagodas."

HelpAge's Malathy points out the country's urban/rural divide. Rural elderly generally

garner greater respect than their urban cousins; on the downside many of the younger

generation in rural areas go elsewhere to find work leaving their children behind.

"That becomes burdensome for older people. Already they have a poverty status,

and having to earn a living for their children makes things even more difficult,"

she says. "The older [rural] people are burdened too much with their grandchildren."

Malathy says the heavier burden falls on women. HelpAge's research found that half

of older women were widows, compared with only one in eight men who were widowers.

Additionally women are more likely to suffer physical and psychological violence,

as well as neglect.

Back on the pavement at Phnom Penh's waterfront, Nhek Soth continues to approach

tourists for small handouts. A widow with no children of her own, she looked after

her brother's children and those of other villagers while they worked in the rice


"The children have grown up and my brother can't feed me anymore," she

says. "I came here a month ago to beg, but I can't stay any longer because the

police won't let me. They come and chase us away.

"I want to get enough money to return to my village [in Svay Rieng]. Here nobody

knows us and nobody takes care of us."


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