No country for old people

By Luu Dinh Long   April 1, 2020 | 10:30 pm PT
What the future holds for the elderly in Vietnam is unclear, especially if they are poor or sick.
Luu Dinh Long

Luu Dinh Long

For the past 10 years I’ve been living in a rented room in a house owned by an old, childless couple.

In their 80s now, Nghi, the husband, and Van, the wife, still work as scrap collectors.

Their house is in a tiny alley in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Ever since I have known them and came to live with them under the same roof, their life has not been easy financially. Their food usually is simple, comprising only vegetables, or food others give Van.

I rarely see her go to the market. Occasionally I give her some money, telling her to buy something nice to eat, but on their dining table I see the same food she gets from others when going around picking scrap.

"How do you plan on keeping all of your money when eating like that?" I asked her jokingly.

"I need to save up in case we’re sick and need medicines," she replied.

He used to earn a living by fixing cassette players while she sold used clothes at a market.

When I started renting the attic of their house in 2005, both of them had already stopped working. Shortly afterward they began to receive orders to make votive papers. They make paper horses, and for working all day they get VND90,000 (less than $4).

At night they go out to collect scrap. There is a bookstore not far from the house, and the manager there has a rule for his staff: segregate all the trash that can be recycled, just for her. Every night at 9 o’clock she goes to collect it. After that she makes a tour of restaurants and street-side eateries to pick metal cans and plastic bottles.

Late one night I went downstairs and found her eating a banh mi in a dark corner and him lying on the floor, squashing mosquitoes. I could not help but feel how lonely that scene was for those two old souls.

Even though my room is only 10 square meters, I have to share the restroom downstairs with them and the ground floor where they live is always filled with bags of scrap they collect and the votive paper they make, I do not want to vacate because it would mean they have to wait for someone to rent that room.

The sum of VND1.5 million ($65) per month they earn from renting out the room to me has been their main source of income for years now.

For now they will keep working as scrap collectors "because as long as we are still healthy enough, we will keep doing the job to earn some extra money," Van said.

Stories of old people long past working age but still working for a living are not unusual in Vietnam.

A survey by the General Office for Population Family Planning in 2017 found more than 70 percent of elderly people in Vietnam have to work for a living since only 30 percent have access to pension and social security.

But Minister of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs Dao Ngoc Dung said only 40 percent of the country’s more than 11 million elderly people have to keep working to take care of themselves even after crossing retirement age.

Of the two contradictory figures, we do not know which one is closer to the truth.

But officially Vietnam entered the ‘aging phase’ in 2011 when 9.9 percent of the population was aged above 60. In 2018 the ratio jumped to 11.95 percent when the population was 94.67 million, and it is expected to climb to 17 percent in 2030 and 26 percent in 2050.

Actually, if the elderly are still healthy enough to work it is a good thing because, to some extent, working is a joy.

But it would be a problem when they are simply too old to work but still have to labor to earn a living or cannot afford health insurance or do not have a pension and have no choice but to become a burden for their children and grandchildren.

Two old men sit by the bank of the West Lake in Hanoi October 2018. Photo by VnExpress/Dinh Tung

Two seniors sit by the bank of the West Lake in Hanoi October 2018. Photo by VnExpress/Dinh Tung.

Recently the social media in Vietnam has been abuzz with a video showing an 88-year-old woman in the nation’s south being beaten by her son and daughter-in-law. An elderly person once told me: "If we get old and sick but don't die and instead lie [in bed] and let our children and grandchildren take care of us, then, however much they may love us, they will one day become disrespectful one way or another."

The video shows the woman lying in bed wearing a diaper, clearly lacking the ability to take care of herself. Her daughter-in-law appears to yell at her first before it gets ugly with the beating. Then her son comes to continue yelling along with more beating.

Though netizens quickly jumped in to express their anger and indignation, and many wished a horrible fate for the son and his wife and the police took in the couple, no one can tell what exactly happened because there must have been a long story for such behavior by the two.

Probing deeper, we can see that inadequate welfare, both spiritually and materially, for old people, and the inadequate public attention to the elderly is the main reason.

Vietnam does not have a hotline to protect old people. In many other countries, whenever one learns that an elderly person is being abused, they can call a hotline to report to the police or victims can call themselves.

We neither have programs to prepare old people for or get them acquainted with the rapid changes occurring in the modern world or teach them on how to manage their physical and spiritual health nor activities to save them from loneliness and being forgotten.

Old people live on the fringes of society.

In worse cases, there are criminal rings that coerce elderly people to beg on the street, with most victims being poor people in rural areas who come to big cities looking for a job.

Nghi told me that after he turned 80 he has been getting a stipend of VND300,000 ($13) a month from the government.

"I give her VND100,000 to cover the cost of our meals. With the rest, I treat myself to a nice breakfast sometimes."

People easily become unstable when they grow old. And that is the future for all of us.

Creating a stable future for the elderly, at least at the basic level, is a task that should be accomplished as soon as possible. This should in fact be a national policy.

It is high time Vietnamese stopped clinging to the old saying "young people depend on their parents and the old depend on their children."

*Luu Dinh Long is an editor at Giac Ngo, a Buddhism newspaper published in Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are his own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
go to top