Vietnamese increasingly find themselves lonely in old age

By Pham Nga   April 4, 2023 | 03:58 pm PT
Last year when Thanh slipped and fell in the bathroom, it took her almost an hour to drag herself out and reach her phone to call a relative.

Her relative came but could only clean her bruises and assist her into bed before having to return home to take care of her two children.

"There were tears in my eyes," Thanh says.

"I have children and grandchildren myself, but none of them was beside me even when I had an accident."

Since her husband passed away Thanh has been living alone in the house where she used to live with him.

To be fair, her children told her to come and live with them in the city, but she did not want to leave her husband’s altar unattended. Nor did she want to put up with the hustle and bustle of the city.

She is one of the 8.6% of seniors who live alone, a figure reported by the Vietnamese Institute of Population, Health and Development.

Truong Xuan Cu, deputy head of the Vietnam Association of the Elderly, says older people like Thanh are increasingly having to deal with loneliness as more and more people leave their parents behind and relocate to cities to pursue careers.

As demographic surveys point out, nuclear families are replacing traditional extended families.

Another study published in 2021 by the Institute for Family and Gender Studies noted that the proportion of elderly people living with their children fell from 79.73% in 1992-1993 to only 28.4% in 2017.

Why is it becoming harder for generations of families to stay under one roof? Dr. Pham Thi Thuy, a professor at the National Academy of Administration, says: "Children and parents are now having too many differences in lifestyles, eating habits and behaviours. The lack of agreement gradually turns into a loss of connection. The elderly will not prefer living with their children, and vice versa."

This is something Thanh experienced after living with her children for some time. She believed washing machines were not as effective as hand washing, and considered eating out three times a week wasteful and also unhygienic. Every time she saw her daughter-in-law buy clothes online, she was unhappy thinking the clothes were "low-quality, tight and more expensive than those sold in rural markets."

Every time she did not understand a conversation about business between her children, she felt uninvited. She was sad every evening when her grandchildren stuck to their phones and laptops instead of talking to her.

All these mismatches in lifestyle drew the mother and children even further apart. Eventually, Thanh went back to her hometown Hai Duong by herself.

After failing to persuade Thanh to stay with them, her children send her money and visit her in turn every month.

"I survived everything in my life. The only thing I crave for at this age is care from my children and grandchildren."

Besides, Thuy points out, in such a scenario seniors feel lonely even when they live with their children.

In fact in 2020 the Vietnamese Academy of Social Sciences quoted a study as saying one in every 2.2 elderly people living together with their children was unhappy.

Illustration: Unsplash

Seniors feel lonely even when they live with their children. Illustration photo by Unsplash

Vietnamese seniors tend to be reserved and often do not want to worry their children.

During Covid, when his wife was in Hanoi taking care of their grandchildren, Tran Van Duc, 75, of Ha Nam fell down and sustained a bleeding injury in his head.

He got up and went to the local clinic all by himself. Then, despite his high blood pressure, he caught a bus to Hanoi to get himself hospitalised. Though his children were living in Hanoi, he did not tell them anything since he did not want them to worry.

When his daughter later called her motherto get her updated, Duc’s wife, Thinh, said sadly: "He must have felt really lonely when he had to do all of those things on his own." But rather than having his children accompany and help him, he completed the procedure alone, despite all of the hardships one could encounter while getting themselves hospitalised on their own after being injured.

Cu warns: "Loneliness and sadness could harm elderly people’s health. This will burden the social welfare system even more."

In fact, the Vietnamese population is aging at a rapid pace.

It is projected that by 2050 Vietnam will become a "super old" country with 18% of the population aged over 65, and this will put a lot of pressure on the social welfare system.

After 2035 it is expected that four people of working age would have to support three people of retirement age.

Elderly people can lead happier lives by taking part in community activities. Photo by Pham Nga

Elderly people can lead happier lives by taking part in community activities. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Nga

Thuy says older people should practise positive thinking and take part in community activities that suit their age if they want to feel better.

Besides, it is not just people who are already old who should adapt their way of thinking, and everyone should prepare early for old age, not only financially but also psychologically, mentally and physically, she says.

Cu says Vietnam should improve its nursing homes, and staff in these places should encourage elderly people to participate in community activities to lead a happier and healthier life.

Loopholes in the social security system should be fixed, Thuy says, pointing out that people’s health deteriorates after around 60 but they have to wait for a few years after that to receive support from social welfare. Besides, more than nine million people of retirement age have never benefited from any type of social security, she says.

Some 38% of seniors take care of their expenses themselves with help from their children while 29% have to continue working after retirement. Only 15% get pensions and 10% get welfare payments.

Thuy says: "Financial stability is what makes one confident and self-assured. Those who do not get any kind of welfare or are not financially supported by their children become upset as time passes by.

"In the end this will turn into a feeling of being forsaken."

Thanh does not blame her children; she is merely sad that her old age prevents her from adapting to her children’s lifestyles.

She is reconciled to the fact that she had to stay on her own in her hometown.

But it does stop her from hoping one of her three children will relocate to live closer to her.

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