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How can Myanmar adapt to changing family dynamics?

Originally written for LIFT and the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS)

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Godfred Paul, Country Director of HelpAge Myanmar

 “Today, we see inter-generational gaps becoming bigger, but it is important for young and older people to maintain a close relationship, because the shared interaction and learning is something worth preserving”, says Godfred Paul, Country Director of HelpAge Myanmar, one of LIFT’s implementing partners.

Godfred believes that changing family relations should not necessarily coincide with loneliness and individuality. In fact, he asserts that “people are made for relationships”, and traditional family bonds in Myanmar are worth protecting. Therefore, in a time when families are increasingly struggling to provide and care for their elderly members, it is essential to give support to older people in need.  

Traditionally strong family bonds

Elderly people in Myanmar are traditionally looked after by their families. Having on average four to five children, they receive material, physical and emotional support from their offspring. They often live in large households built on intergenerational support: older people typically help out with housework and raising grandchildren, while their children work to provide for the family. However, due to a variety of factors such as longer life expectancy, lower fertility, migration and urbanisation, traditional family relations are changing.

Changes in lifestyle are impacting family dynamics

Better nutrition, sanitation and health care are leading the country to age. There are currently more elderly people than ever before, and according to projections by the latest census, the share of persons aged 60 and older will increase from 9 per cent in 2014 to 20 per cent in 2050.

At the same time, family sizes are shrinking. While older people today have an average of four to five children who might be able to care for them, fertility rates have now fallen to two children per woman. As the aging index is rising, older people in the future will not only live longer; they will also have fewer children to support them.

Furthermore, younger generations migrate to cities or abroad to earn a better living, leaving a growing proportion of the elderly behind. As many as one in four Myanmar people are migrants, and “in some places”, according to Godfred, “the only people left are retired”.

Adapting all the while respecting tradition

Current societal shifts make it increasingly difficult for younger generations to support their elders, and Myanmar needs to revise its support systems accordingly. Godfred therefore recommends finding culturally appropriate ways to adapt without disrupting traditions, because “it is important that family values are maintained, preserved and continued”. In fact, HelpAge Myanmar works to help older people in their homes through social pensions, providing training to volunteers and relatives, and establishing older-people-led community groups, rather than advocating residential care.

Social pensions help elderly people make ends meet

Before 2014, there were no specific Government policies, plans or budget for the social protection of vulnerable people. Since 2016, however, there has been a significant increase in Government budget allocation and spending on social protection. In 2017, the Government started giving out monthly universal social pensions of MMK 10,000 to people of 90 years and above. In October 2018, the social pension eligibility age was reduced to 85.

Godfred quotes Daw Than (88) describing the impact social pension has had on his life: “I now receive a social pension of MMK10,000 from the Government, which I received from HelpAge from 2017 to 2018. I use the money on medication, food and to donate to the monastery. My son and daughter-in-law care for me but I know I cannot ask for everything I want. This social pension money allows me to buy things I need.”

With the Department of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, HelpAge is working to further lower the social pension eligibility age to 80 years, and increase the monthly allowance to MMK15,000 in order to increase the positive impact of pensions for older populations. Godfred is optimistic that the reform will be approved: “HelpAge is in Myanmar at the right time. There is willingness from the Government, and they need technical support”.

Self-help community groups support themselves and others

The introduction of pensions for the elderly is representative of social progress in Myanmar. However, they are often not comprehensive enough, and older people generally still need to rely on others for their livelihoods. HelpAge has therefore contributed to the creation of 138 self-help community groups in rural Myanmar in which older people take care of each other and others. To accomplish this, villagers receive funds and training in order to develop ways to gain income.

Results find that these projects are highly successful and allow elderly people to provide for themselves, and often to “support the larger community, provide school uniforms and books for children, and even money for people who need to get to the hospital”. The fact that people live longer also makes such self-help community groups increasingly sustainable as members often provide, care for and train new-joiners and future generations.

Elderly people are an asset to society

Godfred concludes that “when you help older people, the whole family benefits”. To illustrate this, he tells about a meeting he had with a self-help community group. At the gathering, there were coffee, tea and snacks served on the table. The elderly would sit down and enjoy the drinks, but instead of eating the snacks, they rolled them up in paper towels to bring home to their grandchildren.

As the frameworks of society in Myanmar change, it is essential for the country to adapt accordingly by installing safety nets for the more vulnerable members of society. Doing so will not only help older people lead better lives, it will also create more activity in rural areas, as well as increase the skillsets of older people and younger generations who learn from them.

When asked what the next step for HelpAge Myanmar is, Godfred says that the organisation will continue to work step-by-step to improve the lives of elderly people in Myanmar, because “you cannot change the entire world, but if you are lucky enough to improve the life of even just one person, that’s change, and that’s impact”.