By Hong Thuy
The elderly join a club in Trinh Ha Village in Hoang Hoa District in the central province of Thanh Hoa to discuss concerns about such issues as healthcare and farming methods. — VNA/VNS Photo Hong Thuy
THANH HOA — The burden of bringing up two mentally disabled sons has become easier for 69-year-old war invalid Do Thi Mui since she joined an older people's self-help club three months ago.
A lonely and poverty-stricken widow, she often has to spend sleepless nights caring for one of her sons who is 42 and bed ridden. The other son, 36, often collapses with epileptic fits.
Mui herself has rheumatism and is sore from the neck down. She thinks the pain is a result of old age and a wound she received in war time.
"I receive encouragement from club members," Mui said, "They help me do cooking, wash clothes and clean the house."
Busy caring for her sons, Mui had no time to find a job, and had to rely on an invalid pension of VND700,000 (US$36) a month and the charity of relatives to feed the family.
In 2005, Mui gathered enough papers to prove her soldier husband had died from an Agent Orange related disease. This qualified her sons for Agent Orange allowances of VND700,000 ($36)each.
Even so, the total pension of the three was not enough for them to buy rice, medicine and other necessities.
Then she joined the older people's club which was seeking to reduce poverty and improve the health status of the elderly in Trinh Ha Village in Thanh Hoa Province's Hoang Hoa District.
The club attracts volunteers who provide regular home-care support for the poor and elderly. This includes helping them lead healthy lives by eating the right food, doing daily exercise and teaching them about preventive health care.
The club also lends money to people if they have workable ideas for generating income. It particularly targets older people forced to work as labourers to provide money for their daily living and old age. Many of them are not old enough to access the State's free health insurance.
Hoang Thi Dieng, 69, found life tough. She was in debt for years as she struggled to survive.
She did not receive any financial support from the local government until she joined the club in Van Ha Town in Thieu Hoa District. It loaned her VND3 million ($157) to buy a cow.
She still eats frugally to help pay off her debts, and she rarely eats fish or meat. "I don't dare see a doctor as it costs several hundred dong for each visit," said Dieng, "But here at the club, I can have an occasional free medical check-up."
Poverty, a rapid increase in older people and accompanying health problems are posing a big challenge for Viet Nam.
Deputy Minister of Health Nguyen Ba Thuy said most countries with a high proportion of senior citizens were developed, but Viet Nam had a high percentage even though it was considered to be still developing.
He said a large number of the elderly were living in poverty because social welfare in Viet Nam did not meet the needs of all senior citizens.
A survey conducted in 2008 by the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs found the percentage of old people living under the national poverty line (less than $0.4) per day was 23.07 per cent, about twice as high as the national average of 13 per cent.
The General Statistics Office puts the number of older people needing health-care services at more than 70 per cent. However, less than 20 per cent have insurance cards offering free health-care because these are only available to people when they turn 85.
Viet Nam has laws saying that all senior citizens have the right to enjoy basic needs, including food, clothing, information, education, culture and health care. However, chief of the Social and Health Affairs Department under the Viet Nam Association of the Elderly, Pham Ngoc Tran, said it would take years before Viet Nam could achieve these aims.
Under current regulations, only those aged 85 or more without a retirement pension and social-insurance allowance are granted VND120,000 ($6.3) per month and a free health-insurance card.
This is why many older people, like Dieng, are uncared for and explains why they want to join self-help clubs. But there are limits, even at these clubs.
There are 320 older people in Van Ha Town, but only a third of them have joined self-help clubs.
"We do not have enough funds to invite all older people," said club chairman Tran Dang Khoa. "Only 70 per cent of club members are elderly. This leaves room for the rest, who are younger and know how to look after household work."
There are currently 320 self-help clubs for older people in Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, Ha Tinh and Quang Binh provinces.
Foreign friends, the Atlantic Philanthropies and the HelpAge International, want to help address the difficulties confronting Viet Nam's ageing society.
Sylvia Beatles, a spokesperson for HelpAge, said it was clear that the Vietnamese Government was doing its best to improve the situation, "but there is long way to go".
"HelpAge International would really like to support the Government take forward action on ageing," she said.
She urged the Government to extend the social pension allowance to those under 80 because many needed it. "In many countries it comes into play at between 60 years old and 65 years old," she added.
According to the Viet Nam Association for the Elderly, the country had about 8.5 million people over the age of 60 in 2009, equal to 9.9 per cent of population. It forecast this figure would grow to about 18 per cent in 2025.
The average life expectancy has also increased to 72.
HelpAge International's Regional project manager Tran Ngoc Quyen said Viet Nam had enough funds and experience to expand the number of older people's self-help clubs.
Last week, delegates from HelpAge International and associations for elderly people throughout the region convened in Viet Nam's Thanh Hoa Province to share their experiences.
In particular, those from China, Thailand, the South Korea, Cambodia, India, Myanmar and the Philippines hope to outline ways they can work together to get governments to listen to the problems they are also facing - poverty, lack of care, unemployment, limited earning capacity, no pensions.
Participants have come up with a series of proposals and hope to send them to such organisations as ASEAN and the UN for consideration. — VNS