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Viet Nam's elderly long for open skies and doors

Update: June, 29/2015 - 15:08

by Luong Thu Huong

Nguyen Thi Nham always seems sad. She spends her days waiting as her children live in a faraway city.

During the day, she looks forward to her children and grandchildren coming home for dinner and throughout the year, the 75-year-old woman longs for the Lunar New Year to come to her hometown in the northern province of Ha Nam.

Nham smiles when everyone praises her for her children's success and filial piety. And, when the time came for her to leave the countryside for Ha Noi, where her children live, she packed her bags with a heavy heart.

Nham moved in with her son's family over two years ago. It was because of her son's constant persuasion and her affection for her grandchildren that she reluctantly agreed to leave the peaceful rural land, where she had lived for so many years, for the bustling city.

However, besides trivial housework, she does not have much work to do in the city, as her grandchildren have grown old enough to attend nursery school. Her neighbours in the same building keep their doors shut throughout the day and there is no one she can talk to. It is only natural that Nham feels trapped inside a box.

"I long to go back to my hometown and live like I used to," she says. "I'm dead bored living here, but I have no other choice because my children want me to stay with them. I have devoted my whole life to them, so I don't mind spending the rest of my life to satisfy their wishes."

According to the 2011 national census, there are about 8.6 million people over age 60, accounting for nearly 10 per cent of the total population.

In Asian countries like Viet Nam, most elderly people live with extended families and are dependent on their relatives for the rest of their lives. Inadequate support programmes for senior citizens and old people's homes as in western countries do not help either.

In America, for example, where most of the elderly people live apart from their children, the government has established Medicare, a social security programme providing free medical treatment for people over age 65. The US Government also sponsors programmes supporting the elderly through cheap lunch, sport events, or regular medical checkups.

Rapid urbanisation has attracted many Vietnamese to large cities to earn their living; however, filial piety has remained unchanged as a traditional value of generations. Most Vietnamese, therefore, bring their parents from their villages and hometowns to live with them in cities; it is their way of showing gratitude to their parents.

The elderly who are used to the peace and calm of life in the countryside, where everyone knows each other, might find it hard to adapt to the narrow, chaotic, polluted, and isolated life in cities and their modern lifestyles.

"It was only two months since my dad moved in with my family, but he insisted on returning to our hometown in the central province of Nghe An," says Ngo Hong Quang from Hoan Kiem District.

"He could not bear to live in a house where the door is always locked. He would prefer to walk around his village with the help of his stick. Though we did not want to, we had to let him go back to his homeland. Fortunately, we have relatives nearby to check on him," he continues.

One of the worst consequences of this trend of old people moving to cities is that many urban elderly people have become subject to a "modern" disease called "depression".

According to Dr To Thanh Phuong from National Psychiatric Hospital, depression among the elderly is on the rise, especially among those living in large cities, where many of them are isolated and have few friends. Some are even locked behind doors, with TV being their only friend.

However, those who refuse their children's invitation to move with them to cities might not be in better shape.

According to a report on ageing, issued by the United Nations Population Fund in 2011, most Vietnamese elderly people live in the countryside, focusing on the Red River and Mekong deltas, despite rapid urbanisation. This rate slowed down gradually from 78 per cent in 1993 to 73 per cent in 2008.

The report also shows that most of the elderly who live alone in rural areas (about 80 per cent), and the number of families with elderly couple are also on the rise, posing challenges in ensuring quality life for the elderly.

Though they have close neighbourhoods to manage their own lives, they still cannot avoid loneliness as their children and grandchildren live far away. The elderly cannot receive as much care and attention as they can if they live with their extended families.

Apart from the elderly who find in hard to adjust to modern city lifestyles, many others have discovered new sources of happiness in their new lives.

"The problems are that the elderly need to feel they are helpful to their family and do not feel lonely. As soon as these two issues are overcome, they will happily live in the city," says Nguyen Thanh Van, whose mother-in-law has been living with her family for four years and is pleased with her present life.

As soon as her in-law became weak, Van had no choice but to bring her from the countryside to Ha Noi. Van's husband is his mother's only son.

In addition to dutifully meeting all her the needs of her mother-in-law, Van also takes her to a nearby park for exercise every morning and introduces her to other elderly people from the neighbourhood so that she does not feel lonely.

The 70-year-old enthusiastically participates in many activities and senior citizens' clubs for yoga and poem-composition in the district.

"Concerned that my mother-in-law might feel bored, I have also planted some vegetables on the terrace of my house, which she takes care of everyday, just as she used to back in our hometown. Sometimes I ask her how to cook a delicious dish that she is good at, and my children are very much interested in listening to her bedtime fairy tales."

In the countryside or in cities, experts suggest that the best environment for the elderly is to be living comfortably among their descendants.

Van reveals that the secret of getting her in-law to continue living with her is to keep her busy enough so that she is not bored and relaxed enough so that she can enjoy her life.

Van's mother, therefore, has a healthy and optimistic attitude toward life. — VNS

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