Elderly people have traditionally been seen as embodying wisdom and knowledge
in Cambodia. As the country begins a new millennium with fresh hopes for the future,
Sarah Stephens talks to people from the older generation about how the country
has changed, and what the challenges of the next century will be.
"Sometimes it seems like the younger generation think a refrigerator is more
important than the elderly," says Kenneth Riebe of HelpAge International, reflecting
on today's attitudes towards the older generation. "Older people just don't
have a voice in society."
Similarly, Dr Khun Ngeth, President of the Cambodian Association for the Elderly
(CAE), notes that respect and care for elders has reached an all time low.
"Under King Sihanouk's regime there was good assistance to older people in the
country and in the city," said Dr Ngeth. "The government provided them
with a suitable salary to retire and the older people could go to the pagoda and
get assistance, thanks to the high standard of living at the time. But now our society
cannot support this kind of thing."
As Cambodia enters a new century where up to 70 percent of the elderly are women,
and where the burden of care falls on the children alone, with no provisions made
by the state, both NGOs are concerned that over the next generation the burden may
become too much to bear.
Poverty is one of the main contributing factors.
"Sometimes the children simply cannot afford to look after their parents,"
says Dr Ngeth. Reibe agrees. "Even if a family can look after their own grandfather,
they are not going to be able to take anyone else in," he said.
Indeed, many of today's elderly in Cambodia are unable to rely on their children
to look after them, as has been the tradition in the past. With the ravages of warfare
and the Khmer Rouge years taking their toll, an alarming number of elderly face a
bleak future alone, with no family to support them. And there is worse ahead, according
to the experts.
"In the next century, we will see the terrible problem of HIV Aids affecting
the elderly," said Dr Ngeth. "As parents die from Aids, they will often
leave children who then have to be brought up by the grandparents."
"And who will care for the grandparents?" asks Riebe. "The family
structure is going to be hit very strongly in the next century."
It's a problem which both NGOs are now addressing. "It's a big challenge for
the government," continues Reibe, noting that a new policy is needed from the
Ministry of Health on how to cope with the impending crisis, and with other health
issues for the older generation.
According to him, the first steps are under way - the government created a national
committee to begin formulation of a policy last October.
Kim Sophana, Vice President of CAE, notes wryly that although there is a proliferation
of human rights, women's and children's NGOs, there is almost no help at all for
the older generation.
But there are glimmers of hope on the horizon.
Just outside Phnom Penh, on National Route 1, Cambodia's first fledgling old people's
home, courtesy of CAE, is testing the waters, with 50 elderly men and women enjoying
their sunset years in a specially-provided pagoda.
"Unfortunately there are no carers, as we do not have the resources to provide
them," says Dr Ngeth, "But we would like to, and we plan to in the future
if we get enough money from donors."
And four times a month, CAE holds aerobic sessions for the elderly, to help them
exercise and educate them about health.
"I learned about this when I was in Germany," says Dr Ngeth. "Preventative
is better than curative - exercise helps the muscles and respiratory system, and
protects from other diseases like diabetes and arthritis."
In addition, CAE has projects on sanitation, massage, reforestation, and crop subsidization,
all of which aim to draw the elderly out from being a marginalized group into a fully
accepted and respected section of society.
"We want to get away from the idea of older people being vulnerable," says
Riebe. "Older people have a lot to contribute to society, but as modernization
brings new technologies, the knowledge of older people becomes increasingly devalued."
"Older people are viable for the workplace - they can still do light work,"
says Dr Ngeth. "My dream is how can we link older people with younger people
to help forward society."