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 Awang 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 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 program- mes 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.
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.