Who cares for these when they grow old?
IT IS heartening to note, as a Tsao Foundation study found, that most Singaporeans care conscientiously for ageing parents. More than seven in 10 of the 222 caregivers asked in an online poll conducted with research firm TNS give their parents an allowance. Two in three pay their medical bills or keep them company, a good proportion of these doing so daily. But who will care for these caregivers when they themselves grow old? They will live longer than their parents. The Department of Statistics (DOS) reported last year that men aged 65 in 2006 could expect on average to live another 17 years, up from 16 in 2003. For women, it is 21 more years, from 20.
The grey tsunami threatens to grow in both scale and duration if, in between caring for parents and bringing up children, those in the sandwich generation do not or cannot set aside means to provide for their own old age. Those aged between 15 and 64 supported twice as many individuals of 65 years and above in 2007 as their predecessors did in 1970, according to DOS demographic indicators. Put another way, while there were 17 younger people to take care of one older person previously, there are now fewer than 8.5. A challenge lurks behind the macro data: The current caregiver generation has fewer or no siblings with whom to share the burden. The Singapore family has become smaller; total fertility rate declined by more than 58 per cent, to 1.28 last year from 3.07 in 1970.
Beyond the demographic numbers, another reality emerges: Adult children provide 60 per cent of the care the elderly need, according to a recent National University of Singapore study, but they are likely to be the last generation to offer most of such care. Fewer and fewer of their children, today's me-first generation, will be as filial. Values and attitudes are changing. There is evidence to show that more of the 20- and 30-somethings are more self-centred and less inclined to give of their time beyond personal pursuits.
Though government and welfare organisations may yet succeed in exhorting them to preserve some familial values, the middle-aged need to plan for and accumulate savings before it is too late. For a start, more information and a better understanding of informal caregiving should suggest a solution. Government and welfare organisations should help lighten the burden through financial assistance, occasional training and adequate respite before caregivers become care-worn. Beyond this, the caregiver generation deserves support in the Government's policy on ageing, before it becomes the next helpless care-needing generation.