Grey mat­ters

Fil­ial piety alone won't take care of our el­derly. We need laws that safe­guard their rights and well­be­ing.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By S. INDRAMALAR star2@thes­

EV­ERY night, 73-year-old M. Raja loi­ters around the streets of Kuala Lumpur wait­ing for food de­liv­er­ies by Good Sa­mar­i­tans who feed the home­less. Raja lives with his son and daugh­ter-in-law in the city but laments that he is alone and hun­gry all day while they are at work.

“They leave me some buns at home but they come home very late and I get hun­gry. I come down to the streets be­cause I have friends here and I can get some nice food from kind peo­ple,” says Raja, who used to do odd-jobs un­til five years ago when he suf­fered a stroke that left him un­steady.

Raja moved from his home­town in Parit Bun­tar to live with his son af­ter his wife passed away a year ago. His story of iso­la­tion and lone­li­ness is a com­mon one among the el­derly, par­tic­u­larly in ur­ban pop­u­la­tions.

Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Pop­u­la­tion and De­vel­op­ment Board Sur­vey 2014, al­most 30% of el­derly ei­ther live alone or with their el­derly spouse (com­pared to 14.7% in 2004). They are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the Empty Nest Syn­drome, with their adult chil­dren hav­ing left home ei­ther be­cause of mar­riage, em­ploy­ment or mi­gra­tion. The re­main­ing 70.1% of el­derly ei­ther live with their chil­dren or in re­tire­ment and care homes.

Car­ing for the el­derly has also be­come more chal­leng­ing with chang­ing fam­ily dy­nam­ics as more women come out to work and peo­ple have fewer chil­dren to share care­giv­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. With in­creased life span and bet­ter health­care, car­ing for the el­derly is an is­sue that needs to be ad­dressed.

Fam­ily care­givers – dubbed the sandwich gen­er­a­tion – as they have to look af­ter the el­derly as well as their chil­dren, are of­ten over­whelmed as they also need to earn a liv­ing. The strain man­i­fests in many ways, re­sult­ing even in abuse.

A re­cent sur­vey by re­searchers from Univer­siti Malaya’s Pre­vent Elder Abuse and Ne­glect Ini­tia­tive (Peace) in­di­cated that one in 10 el­ders ex­pe­ri­ence abuse and ne­glect in ur­ban set­tings while the fig­ure is one in 20 in ru­ral ar­eas.

In Raja’s case, his chil­dren are ac­tive care­givers but have lit­tle time to spend with him as they are busy try­ing to make ends meet. In more se­vere cases, the el­derly are found aban­doned in hos­pi­tals and on the streets by fam­ily mem­bers who can no longer cope with the task of care­giv­ing.

The Star re­cently high­lighted the plight of some 50 se­nior cit­i­zens who had been aban­doned by their kin at hos­pi­tals and are now re­sid­ing at an old folks home in Kam­pung Pu­lau Mer­anti, Pu­chong. Many of them live with med­i­cal con­di­tions such as di­a­betes, high blood pres­sure, heart prob­lems, de­men­tia and Alzheimer’s. They have chil­dren and rel­a­tives, but who rarely, if ever, visit th­ese old folks.

Th­ese cases are in­dica­tive of a very real and grow­ing prob­lem of elder ne­glect and aban­don­ment which needs the ur­gent at­ten­tion of the au­thor­i­ties.

Re­searchers from Univer­siti Malaya’s Peace ini­tia­tive are push­ing for a spe­cific law for the el­derly to pro­tect their rights and guar­an­tee them ser­vices in their golden years.

Hav­ing a spe­cific law for se­niors which cov­ers not only the rights of the el­derly but also the roles of all stake­hold­ers – the state, ser­vice providers (such as long term res­i­den­tial and care homes, day­care cen­tres, hous­ing de­vel­op­ments, trans­porta­tion, com­mer­cial out­lets, etc), fam­ily mem­bers, non-govern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions and the com­mu­nity, will em­power and pro­tect the el­derly, and go a long way in fa­cil­i­tat­ing healthy and ac­tive age­ing.

“At the mo­ment, we seem to be ap­peal­ing to fam­ily val­ues in re­la­tion to the care of our el­derly. How­ever, tra­di­tional fam­ily val­ues have been and are af­fected by var­i­ous fac­tors such as mi­gra­tion of chil­dren to cities, ur­ban­i­sa­tion, change in the fam­ily struc­tures from ex­tended fam­ily to nu­cleus fam­ily. Most fam­ily care­givers fall in the sandwich gen­er­a­tion and are fac­ing an im­mense strain of hav­ing to make a liv­ing as well as care for their loved ones.

“It isn’t enough to bank on fos­ter­ing fam­ily val­ues per se. We need a le­gal frame­work to sup­port the needs of the el­derly as well as their care­givers. Malaysians in gen­eral still ob­serve their fil­ial duty to care for their el­derly but in­cen­tives must be there to help ease their bur­den.

“It’s not that peo­ple don’t want to care for their aged par­ents, but it’s hard and they need help whether in the form of tax de­duc­tions, dis­counts for ser­vices, leave for tak­ing the el­derly to the hospi­tal and so on. That’s the re­al­ity now and we need to ad­dress it,” says UM law fac­ulty’s As­soc Prof Dr Siti Za­harah Ja­malud­din, who is part of the Peace ini­tia­tive.

Time to (en)act

Malaysia has no law mak­ing it il­le­gal to aban­don or ne­glect the el­derly. The as­sump­tion has been that the el­derly will be well-cared for by their fam­ily in their golden years be­cause fil­ial piety is a value we hold dear.

How­ever, the in­creas­ing cases of elder mis­treat­ment and ne­glect is a clear in­di­ca­tion that the coun­try needs to change its poli­cies and laws to ad­dress cur­rent re­al­i­ties. This need is es­pe­cially dire given that Malaysia will have an age­ing pop­u­la­tion in just 13 years.

“Time is run­ning out for us to put in place sys­tems and laws for the el­derly. Much re­mains to be done and if we do not act now, we will be un­pre­pared when the ef­fects of age­ing are seen in just a few years.

“Laws take a long time to draft and be passed by the Leg­is­la­ture, so an early start can only be ben­e­fi­cial,” says Univer­siti Malaya Deputy Vice Chan­cel­lor (Aca­demic and In­ter­na­tional) Prof Dr Awang Bulgiba Awg Mah­mud who is a part of the univer­sity’s Peace study.

Our cur­rent laws have var­i­ous statutes which are ap­pli­ca­ble to the el­derly such as the Do­mes­tic Vi­o­lence Act 1994, the Pe­nal Code, Care Cen­tre Act 1993, Em­ploy­ment Act 1955 (Part –Time Em­ploy­ees) Reg­u­la­tions 2010, Min­i­mum Re­tire­ment Age Act 2012, Pen­sions Act 1980 and the Em­ploy­ees Prov­i­dent Fund Act 1991. Malaysia also has a Na­tional Pol­icy for the El­derly which was in­tro­duced in

Our le­gal frame­work is scat­tered. At a glance, it would seem that there are a lot of statutes that gov­ern the el­derly. How­ever, th­ese statutes gov­ern every­one, not only the el­derly. They fail to recog­nise the spe­cial needs and chal­lenges faced by the el­derly.

1996 and re­vised in 2011 to cre­ate a so­ci­ety of el­derly peo­ple who are con­tented and pos­sess a high sense of self-worth and dig­nity.

How­ever, th­ese statutes of­fer piece­meal pro­tec­tion and are in­suf­fi­cient in ad­dress­ing the needs of the el­derly in to­day’s so­ci­ety. Just like the Child Act that pro­tects chil­dren from mis­treat­ment and the Do­mes­tic Vi­o­lence Act (DVA) which de­ters vi­o­lence against spouses, the coun­try needs a spe­cific act to safe­guard our se­nior cit­i­zens from abuse, ne­glect and ex­ploita­tion, says Dr Siti Za­harah.

“Our le­gal frame­work is scat­tered. At a glance, it would seem that there are a lot of statutes that gov­ern the el­derly. How­ever, th­ese statutes gov­ern every­one, not only the el­derly. They fail to recog­nise the spe­cial needs and chal­lenges faced by the el­derly.

“Take the Em­ploy­ment Act for ex­am­ple. There is noth­ing in there that pro­hibits dis­crim­i­na­tion to­wards the el­derly in em­ploy­ment. At the mo­ment, it is up the to fair­ness and will­ing­ness of em­ploy­ers but many shun from em­ploy­ing se­nior cit­i­zens be­cause they worry about their health is­sues and so on.

Laws can pro­hibit age dis­crim­i­na­tion while of­fer­ing in­cen­tives for em­ploy­ers.

“Another ex­am­ple is the en­vi­ron­ment. Although de­vel­op­ers are given guide­lines to in­cor­po­rate in­fra­struc­ture and fa­cil­i­ties that are friendly to the el­derly and dif­fer­ently-abled com­mu­nity, th­ese are of­ten not met.

“Guide­lines are just that there is no compulsion for em­ploy­ers to fol­low them. But once it is a law and there is en­force­ment, we will have spa­ces that are con­ducive to our el­derly pop­u­la­tion,” says Dr Siti Za­harah.

Dr Siti Za­harah and her col­leagues – As­soc Prof Dr Jai Zabdi Mohd Yu­soff, Dr Zulza­har Tahir, Sridevi Tham­bip­il­lay and Mo­ham­mad Abu Ta­her – are in the midst of draft­ing a pro­posed statute specif­i­cally on the el­derly which they hope to com­plete by 2019.

The pro­posed statute will help stream­line the var­i­ous pro­grammes and ini­tia­tives of the gov­ern­ment, NGOs and the com­mu­nity which are al­ready in place as well as en­sure the pro­tec­tion of the el­derly.

“The gov­ern­ment has many pro­grammes for the el­derly. The prob­lem is, once again, that they are scat­tered. And, not every­one knows about them or how to ac­cess them. With a law, ev­ery­thing is clear and can be stream­lined. It just makes sense,” says Dr Siti Za­harah.

Com­mu­nity ties

A spe­cific law for the el­derly will com­pel so­ci­ety to recog­nise the im­por­tance of el­derly rights and play their part in safe­guard­ing them.

In her pa­per, Pro­tect­ing the El­derly in Malaysia: A Con­sti­tu­tional and Hu­man Rights Per­spec­tive, Dr Jas­pal Kaur Bhatt from Univer­siti Te­knologi Mara ob­serves that many age-re­lated dis­crim­i­na­tory prac­tices and poli­cies stem from the neg­a­tive stereo­types of age­ing.

“(This) can have neg­a­tive im­pacts on the el­derly. Peo­ple have the view that the el­derly are men­tally and phys­i­cally weak, stub­born, out-of-date, un­able to learn, se­ri­ously un­healthy and all in all a bur­den to so­ci­ety. Be­cause of such stereo­types, the el­derly face

ad­verse treat­ments in terms of em­ploy­ment, their ca­pac­ity to re­ceive fi­nan­cial, health and so­cial ser­vices and also when their views are not re­spected,” she writes.

Such neg­a­tive per­cep­tions pre­vent the el­derly from ac­cess­ing their rights. They may not com­plain or re­port dis­crim­i­na­tion, mis­treat­ment or abuse for fear of con­se­quences, lack of con­fi­dence or be­cause they don’t know how to make a com­plaint or to whom.

It also cre­ates a cul­ture of ex­clu­sion in so­ci­ety to­wards the el­derly, be it in em­ploy­ment, so­cial ac­tiv­i­ties or ser­vices.

The pri­mary aim of a law for the el­derly is not to pun­ish but to em­power this grow­ing grey­ing seg­ment of our pop­u­la­tion to be able to con­tinue to en­joy a ful­fill­ing life. It also will raise com­mu­nity aware­ness of their roles and dis­pel the per­cep­tion that old age is syn­ony­mous with ill health and de­cline.

“A law for the el­derly will force so­ci­ety to ac­knowl­edge and be aware of el­derly is­sues and see their im­por­tance in so­ci­ety just as it did with chil­dren when the Child Act 2001 was in­tro­duced,” em­pha­sises Dr Siti Za­harah.

As­soc Prof Dr Siti Za­harah Ja­malud­din

Photo: 123rf

Malaysians ob­serve their fil­ial duty to care for their el­derly but in­cen­tives must be given to help ease this bur­den. — Pho­tos:

Univer­siti Malaya lec­tur­ers (from left) Dr Jai Zabdi, Dr Zulza­har, Dr Siti Za­harah, Sridevi and Prof Awang (pic right) be­lieve that Malaysia needs to draft spe­cific laws that pro­tect the el­derly’s rights. — MUHD SHAHRIL ROSLI/The Star

The pri­mary aim of a law for the el­derly is not to pun­ish but to em­power this grow­ing grey­ing seg­ment of our pop­u­la­tion to be able to con­tinue en­joy­ing a mean­ing­ful life.

Many se­nior cit­i­zens con­tinue to lead ac­tive and pro­duc­tive lives.

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