PREY VENG, CAMBODIA
— In Cambodia, the population is young compared to its larger neighbors, because of years of conflict and the peacetime baby boom that followed. But demographers warn the country must do more to prepare for a doubling in the number of senior citizens in the next 20 years.
Tiny Cham Bak village in Southeast Cambodia sits about 100 kilometers outside the capital, Phnom Penh. But in many ways, it is a world apart. Electricity reached here for the first time only in the last year.
But that is not all that has changed.
Aging and poor
Kim Vuthy grew up in this village, only the second person from Cham Bak to attend university. He works in Phnom Penh now, but he comes back as often as he can. And when he does, he sees more and more elderly people living hand-to-mouth. “I have seen that older people when they are growing older, they have to live by themselves," he said. "Especially for those who have no family. They have to beg for food.”
That is what happened to 67-year-old Pring Am. Her son in Phnom Penh could no longer afford to take care of her and his growing family on wages of less than two dollars a day. So she returned here. But she had no land to farm and no job. So she started begging on the main road. “I felt very embarrassed. But I was more worried about staying alive, than being embarrassed," she explained. "It’s better to be a beggar than a thief.”
Retirement Village opens
Last year, Vuthy opened what he believes is the first retirement home in the country here in Cham Bak - the Cambodian Retirement Village
It is for people like Pring Am, the first of five current residents, whose families can no longer support them.
“They go to work far away from home. They go to find jobs in the city and then they left their older people at home living by themselves. So traditionally, Cambodian people they should take care of their parents, but now it has changed a lot,” Vuthy stated.
While Pring Am’s age group grows, the percentage of people who are working age, will shrink. That means fewer people to support a more dependent population.
It is a demographics conundrum with serious implications. In many nations in Asia, this trend is hurtling forward at an unprecedented rate.
Zachary Zimmer is a demographer and sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who says developing countries have crucial decisions to make as they try to broaden the social safety net.
“So policy has to be derived in order to come up with some ways of maintaining productivity, and also making sure that elderly people are taken care of in a way that is deserved of them. It may require older people working longer. It may require other kinds of government interventions to allow people of younger age to care for their older age parents,” added Zimmer.
Although people older than 60 make up about seven percent of Cambodia’s population today, that figure is projected to jump to 11 percent by 2030.
Annie Nut is the country director for HelpAge International, a non-governmental organization that works on aging issues. She says the need to support more older people comes as economic pressures place added stress on the traditional Asian family support system.
“In the past and up until now, the families are taking care of all these needs. But we know that the society is changing," said Nut. "And, it’s more and more difficult for the families to ensure those needs of the elders. And, the question is, what could replace those needs, those gaps?”
has worked with the Cambodian government to set up older people’s associations. They function as a co-operative for elderly people. Membership fees are collected and participants can apply for loans or access rice banks.
It is a sort of community-level social safety net, in a country where government services do not reach everyone. The government has adopted the model and there are now more than 300 such groups around the country.
Resources may be scarce, but Nut says authorities here have the opportunity to prepare. “The government is fully aware of the age transition. And, also it’s fully aware that Cambodia has a little bit of time ahead and has time to learn from other countries in the region.” stated Nut.
Although the aging boom that has already hit nearby countries may come late to Cambodia, its impact is foreshadowed in rural areas.
A recent study by the country’s ministry of planning suggests that Cambodians are leaving their home villages at an “astounding” rate - four percent each year.
Working-age people are heading to Phnom Penh or further afield to look for jobs. And, as the young move on, they leave their parents behind. In places like Cham Bak, economic migration is already changing the face of Cambodia’s villages.