In the midst of the bustling city of Bangkok, a thick murmur of despair resides, particularly in the Klong Toey slum, where 73-year-old Chusri Kaewkhio shares a life of struggle with her 75-year-old husband, Suchart. Their plea to the government is simple – they need more support as the cost of living continues to skyrocket. It’s a seemingly straightforward appeal, but their story is a stark representation of a nationwide issue that is more complex than meets the eye.
Chusri’s dreary days get started under the blazing sun, queuing for a free meal – a far cry from the food she once enjoyed at home. The meager government pension that mirrors about 82 US cents a day gives rise to bleak repasts, often just bread and ketchup from 7-Eleven. She shared with AFP reporters at a meal delivery tent run by the Bangkok Community Help Foundation, admitting, “If it’s too wet to come, I eat 7-Eleven bread with ketchup”. Daily, the organization feeds 500 of Bangkok’s homeless and poor, becoming the lifeline for those on the brink of survival, like Chusri.
Almost ironically, Thailand is among the world’s most rapidly aging societies according to the World Health Organization, but the health of its economy tells a different story. Research conducted by major lender Kasikorn Bank reveals the grim panorama that awaits – by 2029, over 20% of the population will be aged over 65, making Thailand a super-ageing society. Despite the high percentage, the comparison to affluent aged societies, such as Japan and Germany, reveals a gaping wealth discrepancy. In the words of chief economist Burin Adulwattana from Kasikorn Bank, “We’ve become old before we’ve become rich”, thus Thailand remains ill-prepared for the economical implications of an ageing population.
The situation is indeed dire. Already, 18% of the population, equivalent to over 12 million Thais, are over the age of 60. Many of these seniors will endure abject poverty due to low incomes, scant savings and insufficient government pensions whilst the number of taxpayers dwindle and healthcare expenditure balloons. Kirida Bhaopichitr, from the Thailand Development Research Institute, warns that the issue is, indeed, a ticking time bomb”.
In the Khlong Toei slum, Chusri’s struggles depict the grim reality of senior poverty. With her husband ailing and their home near shambles, they are forced to borrow money to afford the costly milk needed for Suchart’s feeding tube. They are overdue on their electricity bill by five months and there’s just no money for the badly needed home repairs.
The situation in Thailand demonstrates the urgency of physical, cultural, and financial changes for its ageing society. As its demographic shift gains more ground, the Thai government must explore measures such as raising the retirement age higher than the current 55-60 years and considering wealth and inheritance taxes.
Yet, for many of the elderly in Thailand, such as a former teacher named Aew who now sleeps at the Bang Sue Grand train station after losing her home in the pandemic, the dream of dignified retirement remains but a distant glimmer. In Aew’s own words, “The pension is not enough. I also make plastic flowers to sell on the street… But I want a job,” she confessed, emphasizing the desperate circumstances faced by many of the ageing population in Thailand.