|Mass movement: Hundreds of elderly in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai do physical exercises during the province's recent Sports and Physical Festival. — VNS Photo Sy Huynh
by Nguyen Thanh Ha
Every day, Nguyen Van Chuc puts on his sports attire and leaves his house at 4pm. He walks for about 10 minutes to reach a park, where he and his friends play badminton until 6pm.
Chuc, a resident of Ha Noi's Cau Giay Ward, is 86 years young, and enjoys his time with his peers everyday.
"Despite my age, I'm healthy. I am content because my children all are grown up and have stable jobs. They live separately from us but they are respectful to us; but we'd accumulated a certain amount of money since we were young so do not have to rely on our children.
"We are really happy when every weekend my daughter and son bring their children to visit us. Sometimes they stay overnight with us."
Chuc's wife, Vu Thi Khuong, 76, likes to go to pagodas with her friends.
"Apart from cooking and some other work at home, I often go to different pagodas and temples around Ha Noi to join monks in doing charity works such as cooking meals for poor patients at the Bach Mai and Central Paediatrics hospitals."
Khuong says she finds peace in doing what she does.
"Thank God that my health is stable and allows me to use my time in these charity works."
Elderly couples living healthy, happy lives like Chuc and Khuong are not a rarity in Vietnamese cities.
|Anniversary:More than 3,000 elderly in Ha Noi perform tai chi to mark the twentieth year of the Tai chi Movement in Viet Nam. — VNS Photo Minh Duc
Sixty-one-year-old La Thi Hien of Ha Noi's Hai Ba Trung District, and her husband Phan Van Hai, 65, start every new day walking to the Tuoi Tre Park to practice tai chi with their friends.
"Our group has 40 elderly people, from 55 to 75 years old. They all are very active in joining the exercise because it helps improve our health. Also making and meeting friends makes our lives relaxed and happy.
"Sometimes we join a tai chi contest held by the city sports authorities. Last year, our group won the second prize.
"We are retired and do not have to think about earning a living, so our only wish is to be healthy, so that apart from doing tai chi we can travel to places we like. We are enjoying life now," Hien said.
She shared with Viet Nam News the secret behind her current happiness - saving money and taking care of one's health from very early on.
"I tell my children all the time that they should have a concrete plan for spending money; some they should save, some has to be spent on children's education and a part should be used for charity work," Hien said.
|Check-up:Ethnic elderly in the mountainous province of Son La see a doctor at their home. — VNS Photo Duong Ngoc
Then she went further and said those who are elderly and single should find a close friend and get married again, and "their children should not prevent it".
Ha Ngoc Thu, 75, a resident of Ha Noi's Hoan Kiem District, says he enjoys living at the Ho Tay Nursing Centre because he can make friends with many other elderly people and join physical and sports activities with them.
"Much more important is that doctors and nurses take good care of me when I am ill.
"Since my son, who has settled down in Japan, sent me to the centre in 2010, I don't feel lonely and sad compared as I did earlier. Now I feel happy."
Such heart-warming anecdotes are just one side of the story, of course.
Unlike their peers in big cities like Ha Noi and HCM City, many elderly citizens in rural areas have no time to relax and enjoy life. Their life is a daily struggle to make ends meet.
Bui Thi Xuyen, 66, says she and her husband have to wake up very early to go to work in the fields because their children have gone to the cities to earn a living.
The resident of Hai Hau District in the northern province of Nam Dinh, sees no respite in sight: "My husband suffers from rheumatism, but he has to do an extra job as a xe om (motorbike taxi) driver to earn money for our treatment because our children are poor. They cannot help us."
At 65, Doan Van Duong, a member of the Tay ethnic minority, looks pale and weak, but the farmer not only works in his fields, come rain or shine, hot or cold, but also works on the side as a carpenter.
The resident of Boc Thuong Village in the northern province of Cao Bang has no easy times to look forward to.
"My wife died some ten years ago. My three children have all gone to work in Cao Bang City, about 70km from my village. I live a lonely life.
"I'm afraid of becoming seriously ill because I have no health insurance and also have no money to pay for treatment."
Duong also said that he is grateful his neighbours lend a helping hand when he needs it.
Pham Ngoc Tran, who heads a national organisation dealing with issues relating to senior citizens, says at least one-third of the elderly in the country are either poor or very poor. A recent survey found that the mountainous provinces of Lai Chau, Cao Bang, Kon Tum and Binh Dinh have a particularly high rate of impoverished senior citizens.
|Health care: The Social Sponsoring and Dermatology and Vererology centres in the central province of Quang Ngai give free medical check-ups and medicine to the elderly and orphans. — VNS Photo Thanh Long
Viet Nam has one of the fastest aging populations in Asia, so taking care of the elderly is an important part of national socio-economic policies, said Duong Quoc Trong, director of General Office for Population and Family Planning.
He said there are several centres dedicated to caring for senior citizens who have contributed to the country's struggles for independence and similar establishments for the aged whose children are not in a position to help them.
However, Thai Phuc Thanh, deputy head of the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs' Social Welfare Department, admitted that despite the high rate of ageing population in the country, social programmes dedicated to their care have been modest.
For example, an octogenarian who has no pension receives just VND350,000 per month, a pittance in these days when prices of even essential goods are high.
Worse still, a 2011 national survey on the elderly found that just 1.5 million of the 9 million elderly in the nation receive such payments. Of the total number, 26.1 per cent don't have health insurance and more than 51 per cent don't have enough money to pay for treatment. This is a matter of concern because 95 per cent of the elderly have ailments and just 4.8 per cent enjoy good health, said Thanh.
Dr Luong Ngoc Khue, head of the Ministry of Health's Department for Treatment Management, also admitted that health services, clinics and state budget allocations for the elderly are still limited.
Viet Nam is particularly short of gerontologists and nurses, so the elderly depend mainly on their families and communities, he said.
Arthur Arken, UNFPA Representative in Viet Nam, said at a recent national conference on population aging that Viet Nam's population aged very quickly compared with countries like France and Sweden.
For the situation to improve, first and foremost, Viet Nam needs realistic policies and strategies that are "designed and implemented using evidence on the relationship between ageing population, economic growth, culture and the specific social service's needs for the older persons, including health care", he said.
Next, ageing and the needs of older persons should be included in all national development policies and programmes, including gender policies, humanitarian response and climate change mitigation and adaptation plans.
"Third, we need to remember that the older persons of today were young some years ago, and that the young people of today will be the next generation of older persons. Thus, investing in young people's health, education, participation and decent employment is important in dealing with the needs of future generations of older persons," Arken said.
Most importantly, he said, older persons have expressed their desire to remain active and be respected members of society, he said, adding: "They have much to offer and their voices must be heard. They need access to social services and affordable healthcare. Their rights must be protected so that they can live in dignity and free from discrimination and marginalization." — VNS