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Suffering and struggle reveal tragic side of Thailand’s ageing society

Eighty-year-old Chalong does not just sit at home waiting for his monthly government subsidy payment. Instead, he keeps himself busy doing odd jobs four days a week.

“What I want more than state assistance is a job,” the octogenarian says. “I want to make a living. I prefer using money I have earned myself.”

Chalong does not just have himself to support, but also his physically challenged daughter.

“I had been homeless for nearly a decade until the Mirror Foundation accepted me as part of its ‘Work from Homeless’ project. Now I’m able to rent a room and look after my daughter,” the poor but proud father said.

Jobs for the homeless & elderly

The project’s coordinator Benjamas Pa-ngam said jobs are assigned based on members’ financial needs and ability. Chalong, for instance, is being assigned more jobs because he needs to look after his daughter too.

Under the project, Chalong is paid 400 baht per day. He is relatively healthy and can drive a motorbike to work. This month his jobs included sweeping the road and trimming shrubbery in Bangkok’s Min Buri district.

The project’s oldest member, 82, is not as physically fit as Chalong, so he has been assigned to sort and categorize donated items at the foundation’s office.

The project now has 114 active members, 80 percent of whom are over 65 years old. Most of them are either homeless or rent rooms for between 800 baht and 1,500 baht per month.

“We accept applications on the first Monday of each month. We then interview applicants to see if they are responsible, have a sense of duty, and are willing to comply with our rules,” Benjamas said just before Thailand marked the National Day for Older Persons on April 13.

Her project now coordinates with district offices across Bangkok to find jobs for its members.

Getting poorer as you grow older?

Chalong had never imagined that he would one day become homeless. He had an office job for nearly 30 years and was the breadwinner for his family. He had four children and lived with his in-laws.

About three decades ago, his wife passed away, then some 20 years ago he had to retire. He said he was able to live with his in-laws for about 10 years after his wife’s death but eventually had to move out because it was not his house.

(Photo courtesy of Mirror Foundation)

Chalong ended up on the street, sleeping in shrines or other public spaces. He did odd jobs for survival, including waving promotional flags on the street for real-estate projects.

“However, as I grew older, people did not want to hire me. They considered me too old,” he says.

Luckily, he heard about the Work from Homeless project and managed to get himself registered.

State subsidy for the elderly

Some 12.24 million Thai citizens are elderly and 9.6 million receive a monthly state subsidy payment. The payment increases with age, from 600 baht for people in their 60s, to 700 baht when they reach 70, 800 baht at 80 and 1,000 baht for 90-year-olds and above.

However, this subsidy is not enough to survive on, meaning recipients also need other forms of support or savings to rely on.

A survey conducted by the Institute for Population and Social Research reveals that 99.3 percent of Thailand’s elderly population need state subsidies to survive.

Up to 65.2 percent say they have no savings, and 40 percent say they have nobody to rely on and need to keep working. Many low-income earners rely on their younger relatives for support.

Working hard in their old age

Nuken Intajan, 61, sells grilled chicken and papaya salad in a crowded Bangkok community to cover bills for her children and grandchildren.

“I consider myself lucky because I’m still in good health,” she said. “We were not born into a wealthy family, so we just have to keep struggling as best as we can.”

She admitted, however, to worrying deep down that her landlord might cancel the lease under which she pays just 1,000 baht monthly rent. This would leave her in a dire state as it would be hard to find a room for the same rent in a neighborhood where she can sell food to survive.

Nuken has been working since she was a young child. She left school even before she completed primary education.

Another elderly woman said she has been making a living as a house cleaner for nearly 30 years but now fears the COVID-19 crisis could leave her without a job.

Roaming the streets of Bangkok, a 63-year-old man said he had come to the capital to look for jobs so he could send money home.

His only child suffered an accident four years ago and is now bedridden. His wife is looking after their stricken son and relying on the son’s social security payments and her own elderly person’s subsidy. If he does not earn some money for them, his son and wife face a bleak future.

“I am willing to sleep on the streets so I can save money,” the destitute father said. “But because of COVID-19, it’s so difficult to find a job.”

Over the past few years, he has collected freebies where he can and used his right to free train travel to take them back to his family in Chachoengsao.

He also uses his welfare card to buy what he can for his loved ones. Despite being old, he still has to take care of his dependent family members.

Cause of retirement problems

Dr Worawet Suwanrada, who teaches at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Economics, says the most common problems among the elderly are inadequate income, lack of health security and an unfavorable home or social environment.

“These problems stem from many causes, including low level of education, lack of access to state welfare, and state policies that do not respond well to their needs,” he said.

Worawet believes authorities should urgently roll out a minimum income guarantee through pensions and engage local administrative bodies in designing elderly-friendly environments.

According to the Department of Older Persons, 96 percent of elderly Thais are still socially active, with only 2.69 percent stuck at home and just 0.60 percent bedridden.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk

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