Shifts in youth culture and the abandonment of traditional models of family care leave a growing number of Cambodia's elderly to fend for themselves in their final years
Photo by: ELEANOR AINGE ROY
An elderly resident at Wat Ounalom surrounded by members of the younger generation
Elderly retire to temples for refuge and dharma
Thousands of Cambodia’s elderly spend their last years in Buddhist temple compounds. For some, the temple is a refuge. Others come to devote their last years to the acquisition of Dharma, hoping for a better reincarnation.
Ouk Set, 78, has been living in Wat Svay Popar since 1979. Her husband and two sons were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime, and when it fell, she had nowhere to go and no one to care for her.
“Even if my children were alive I would still come to the temple, as it is a good place to learn Dharma. I will live here until I pass away and I am happy. This place is my home. Even if I don’t have family, I have many old friends, and we all look after each other,” she said.
Pech Poy, 50, has been living at Wat Ounalom for eight years, devoting the rest of his life to the acquisition of Dharma.
“I see that most old people live in difficult situations because they don’t have a place to stay, so I am luckier than most,” he said.
“When I die my next life will be better than this. I believe I will be reborn in a good condition because now I try to do good and save the Dharma."
IN a small hut by the side of the road, Long Hang has been lonely for many years. Her roof is built of plastic tarp and coconut fronds that leak in the rain. The 70-year-old was turned out of her family home when she became too weak to work. Now, she spends her days lying on a dirt floor, too ill to move and blind in both eyes.
"I used to live with my niece, but she kicked me out when I lost my sight. I became a beggar on the road, and some travellers who saw my hardship would stop and give me money. But most people were indifferent. I don't have any relatives left, and all I hope is that strangers will give food to help me," she said.
Long Hang is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, but a victim of old age - spending her final days in a society that lacks a welfare system and where traditional methods of family support have been increasingly abandoned.
"Old people in Cambodia have a very difficult time," said Ou Virak, director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.
"They are not a ‘sexy' cause, and people like giving to sexy causes," he added.
The National Strategic Development Plan 2006-10 has identified the Kingdom's elderly (60+ years old), which represent six percent of the population, as a "vulnerable group requiring priority attention".
But their care is being neglected in favour of sectors such as defence, whose budget was recently doubled, Ou Virak said.
"The primary caregiver for elderly people in Cambodia is still the family, and there is a long tradition of this in Cambodia," he said.
"During the Khmer Rouge [era] and in the years preceding and following it, there were not many babies born. And many of those that were did not survive infancy. There is a big generation gap now, and we have a lot of old people and a lot of young people. But we lack earners in society, working-aged people between 35 and 45. This is going to become a big problem in the future and it is one that needs to be faced now," Ou Virak said.
Ven Sarith, director of Aged Care International based in Battambang, agreed with the assessment of the generation gap but said hard data is scarce.
The Ministry of Social Affairs and Development and the Ministry of Health were unable to provide the Post with official statistics on birth rates before and after the Khmer Rouge regime.
Ou Virak said a shift in youth culture - which has young Cambodians looking to the West for cultural guidance-has also contributed to the demise of traditional methods of aged care as young people adopt materialistic habits and evaluate their success in terms of the individual rather than the family.
"Education is on the rise, and people in rural areas are moving to the cities to attend university and look for jobs. Now, young people no longer have to rely on their families so much for support, but this also means that they don't expect to be looking after their parents," Ou Virak said.
I know old people in their
countries have been taken care
of by their government — the
opposite to the situation in Cambodia.
"A wide disconnection is beginning between the older generation, the younger generation and a big, black hole in the middle," he added.
Worst in the region
The 2004 Survey of Elderly in Cambodia determined that older residents of the Kingdom were worse off than their counterparts in neighbouring countries, including Myanmar, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia.
The study found that elderly people in rural areas suffered more than those in cities, being forced by poverty to work well into old age. In urban areas, 30.9 percent of people aged 60 or older participate in the workforce, while in rural areas almost 65 percent continue to work, primarily as agricultural labourers.
The results of such work mean Cambodia's elderly have the worst health in the region and substantial difficulty performing daily tasks such as sitting up, washing and eating.
Many older people also suffer silently from undiagnosed mental conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, the study found - an enduring legacy of the Khmer Rouge years.
But Aged Care International's Ven Sarith sees Cambodia's high rate of working elderly as a point of pride for the country, and thinks their experience and skills should be further harnessed to contribute to the Kingdom's development.
He said the government should encourage NGOs to be more involved with elderly people because they have the potential to be productive members of society.
Keo Chantha, director of the Cambodian Elder Support Program, runs a centre for elderly people in Sen Sok commune on the muddy outskirts of Phnom Penh. He set up the centre because he feared his children would not care for him in his old age.
"When I was a child, there was a family that lived near me and treated their grandmother very badly. They beat her and refused her food, and eventually locked her up in a very small room. She died, and from that time I have been afraid that maybe as I get older the same will happen to me. It has not, but it remains a persistent fear. I was scared that if no one looked after me or my children abandoned me, I would end up as a beggar on the street," he said.
Keo Chantha, a former French professor from the Royal University of Phnom Penh, founded the centre in 1997 with private funds. Over the years, he has received sporadic help from donors in Canada and South Africa, but the centre is principally funded from his own savings and the minimal support he gets from his children.
He has written many times to Prime Minister Hun Sen and King Norodom Sihamoni requesting assistance for his projects, but has so far received no response. His eyes fill with tears when he talks of their silence.
"The government and most NGOs are not interested in old people. They focus on people who have enough energy and power to work."
Keo Chantha's centre helps 45 elderly people in his commune, feeding them and providing a safe, clean place to live. For many old people in the area without family or government assistance, the centre provides a vital service.
"I consider all old people as my parents. I didn't have the chance to take care of my parents because they died in the Pol Pot regime. This is my chance now to do good by their memory."
Amid claims of government neglect from elderly people throughout the country, Dr Pay Sambo, deputy director of retirement and pensions at the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation, says plans are under way to care for Cambodia's aging population.
He says a meeting is planned for Monday among the various interested ministries and aged-care professionals throughout the country.
"I am currently in the process of securing funds to build a big centre where old people can stay, and I am working very hard to make this plan a success," he told the Post.
"But the government does not have enough funds to help everyone, and so I am trying to implement aid step by step. Our country has greater problems than neighboring countries because of the legacy of the Khmer Rouge and our status as a developing nation. But we have not forgotten the old people."
Lich Sreng, 70, lives near a new nursing home in Chong Ampil commune, Prey Veng province.
He takes Pay Sambo's promises with a grain of salt.
"I want the government to take care of older people. Then, we will feel warmly about our leader. I feel shy now in front of foreigners because I know old people in their countries have been taken care of by their government - the opposite to the situation in Cambodia."