Happy Asian family. Photo: iStock

“It is traditional Asian culture, [that] when children are young, parents look after them, and when parents are old, their children look after them. Children are taught to respect elders, stay with them and care for them when they get old.”

So wrote Princess Norodom Soma, of Cambodia’s royal family, in an opinion piece published in 2012. She added that she herself had left her job and moved back to Cambodia from the United States in order to take care of a frail parent, Prince Norodom Vatvani, a cousin of King Norodom Sihamoni.

Taking care of old and frail parents is commonly seen as the responsibility of children in Cambodia. This is part of a traditional and deep-rooted culture of Cambodians, which has continued from the prehistoric era until the modern day. Traditionally, within the family, the wife is supposed to stay at home and be responsible for the care of frail and bedridden parents, and household chores, while the husband goes out to work and plays the role of breadwinner. However, this norm is likely to change in the near future.

According to the National Population Projection Report, Cambodia’s demographic profile is shifting from a young population to an old population. The current elderly population is about 1.2 million, or 7% of the total. However, by 2030, there will be at least 2 million Cambodians entering their golden years and leaving the workforce, which will equal 11% of the total population, and is predicted to increase to 21% by 2050.

Without proper policies, this could burden the economy as the proportion of gross domestic product flowing to pension schemes and social benefits grows larger. Moreover, at a deeper level, more women participating in the economy is surely needed to support economic growth, a situation similar to that now experienced in Japan, where the government has proposed a “Womenomics Policy” to attract women into the workforce. Also, according to the World Bank’s World Development Report 2019 on “The Changing Nature of Work,” there will be further mass migration of labor from rural areas to cities due to the effects of industrialization and technology advancement.

If family members are all at the workplace and have no time for elderly care, who will be responsible for caring frail parents? It is probable that elderly-care centers, where there are professional caretakers and skillful doctors, could replace the traditional norms. Unquestionably, many developed countries are already implementing this approach.

“Taking recognizance of the growing challenges and needs of the aging population, especially vulnerable and homeless elderly, we have called for urgent attention from relevant institutions and stakeholders to update the National Policy on Aging, [to make it] more responsive and comprehended,” Vong Soth, minister of social affairs, veterans and rehabilitation, has been cited on the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) website as saying.

In this sense, the Cambodian government has paid attention to new trends and has already proposed related policy. For instance, Objectives 3.1 and 3.2 of National Aging Policy 2017-2030 clearly demonstrate promotion of providing services to the elderly living at home and providing appropriate living arrangements for elderly with no family support. To achieve these two objectives, the government strategically aims to provide elderly-care training to caregivers, incentivize elderly-care businesses and encourage elderly-care volunteerism, as well as to impose regulations to protect the elderly from all forms of abuse.

Moreover, the government aims to establish community-based old-age centers, and to ensure they maintain appropriate standards.

According a speech by Toch Channy, spokesman of the Ministry of Social Affairs, the government, along with the aforementioned policy, is making efforts to build a National Center for Elderly with high standards for the elderly to stay and receive care from the government. Indeed, what is certain is that the future of elderly-care will look very different from how the elderly were cared for traditionally and today. Even the royal family, under Queen Mother Norodom Monineath, paid attention to it and built the first elderly center, Preah Sihanouk Raja Geriatric Center, inside Phnom Penh’s Khmer Soviet Friendship Hospital, at the cost of about US$2.5 million.

Vorn Searivoth is a Young Research Fellow of Future Forum, a public policy think-tank based in Phnom Penh. He is currently conducting a research project on aging policy in Cambodia.

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