By Dr Mary Ann Tsao
(Article first appeared in Straits Times, Opinion, on 11 June 2019)
A recent study released by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy triggered a discourse on the amount of money a relatively healthy older person would need today to have a minimum standard of living that goes beyond the basics of housing and food.
When the Tsao Foundation, which I chair, funded this study, the aim was to give older people a voice and allow us to hear what they need and consider as the minimum standard of living – a standard that they feel will give them a sense of belonging, respect, security, independence and participation.
What was most useful about this study was not the dollar amount the survey found to deliver this minimum standard, but the fact that we heard directly from older cohorts what they needed to enjoy quality of life.
The study found that $1,379 is needed for a relatively healthy single older person aged around 65 to meet a decent standard of living. This has generated spirited discussion on whether this amount is too little, too much or just enough. At the same time, we hope the study will give Singaporeans food for thought to reflect, in more concrete terms, on what their expected quality of life is in later life and to plan accordingly.
For people in their 40s and 50s, financial planning for their future is critical, especially given Singaporeans’ increasing longevity well into our 80s. For those who are near retirement age, the study provides a framework to help them determine how much they will need and how much longer they may wish to work and earn, and think more proactively about savings and investments.
Planning for old age is not just for the individual, but also the family. For many older people today, their family is their old-age financial plan.
With little educational opportunities in their youth, many among the older generation laboured to raise and educate their children so the next generation can have a brighter future. As a result, many of today’s elderly people have relatively little savings of their own and are dependent on the family.
The study prompts families to have a conversation and for grown-up children to discuss their parents’ aspirational quality of life and explore how to meet this standard.
Shrinking family size, however, does challenge this reliance on family for old-age income. While inter-generational solidarity remains strong in Singapore, having fewer children to share the cost of support does strain family finances, especially with longer life expectancy.
A study by the Institute of Public Policy (IPS) showed that all generations felt strongly that the responsibility to care for older parents remains with the family. However, that sense of support is less strong with the sandwich generation, most likely due to the real strain they experience in providing for children and parents.
Since 1993, the Tsao Foundation has been innovating and providing a range of community-based health and social services to meet the needs of older people in Singapore. Some have no children, some live alone, while others live with their families. As we are a non-profit group, most of the elders we serve are poor or have modest means; in this regard, we are deeply familiar with their social and financial circumstances.
For older people with limited or no means, a basket of financing generally covers basic daily living needs as well as their health and social care expenses: this typically comes from government subsidies and grants, their own money if they work, family income, and donations. While this basket of financing is usually adequate to pay for necessities, there is little money left for anything else.
The situation is similar for those whose income level just misses subsidy eligibility.
With longer lifespans and smaller families, the state needs stronger support for elders, but the rest of us in society must also step up.
The community and the non-profit sector must look beyond the traditional practice of just focusing on meeting basic needs, and address a standard of living that embraces dignity and respect. Some initiatives are already happening. Habitat for Humanity ensures that older persons' housing is not just a roof over their heads, but a comfortable home. Tsao Foundation’s Cafe Kawan in the Whampoa Community Centre is a home away from home, where older people can meet and make friends, find a listening ear, discover and learn new interests.
Finally, the private sector must do more to make the life of current and future generations of older people better. Companies can provide more age-inclusive practices, such as having eldercare leave for staff who do not have small children but have older parents to look after.
Employers need to have fair human resource management practices. According to the same IPS study, a survey of working people of all ages noted that ageism is rampant in the workplace. Companies need to hire, compensate and retain according to roles and abilities rather than age, with equal opportunities for learning and career development for older workers.
International studies have shown that older workers have less absenteeism compared to the younger co-workers, make fewer mistakes and, counter to common belief, older workers can be re-trained, though they need to be trained differently.
With a decreasing pool of younger workers due to a falling birth rate, employers must awaken to a new demographic reality and adapt the workplace for older workers. If elders are able to work longer with fair pay and earn more, they will be better able to have sufficient funds to meet a minimum standard of living in their later lives.
Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes the same attitude and effort to ensure that all of our elders can live with dignity. We should not allow some to live poorly. Collectively as a society, Singapore - with all its wealth - must ensure that our elders get to enjoy a decent standard of living in their old age, when they are no longer able to create a better material future for themselves.