PHNOM PENH —
Like many developing countries, Cambodia’s mainly agricultural society is changing fast, driven by urbanization and falling fertility rates. As young workers move to the cities, older people are staying back in the villages, where they have little support.
After Sok Soeun’s husband died 12 years ago, she left her village for the Saravan pagoda in Phnom Penh.
Twenty elderly people - most of them women - live here assisting the monks with Buddhist ceremonies.
In return, attendees donate cash that the women spend on food and medicine.
Although former civil servants and soldiers get a pension, more than 80 percent of Cambodia’s 850,000 elderly did not have formal employment and so do not qualify.
Like 73-year-old Soeun, many are widows and struggle to get by.
“My kids come here every two or three months and give me between 10 and 25 dollars," she said. "It depends - they are poor. But what can I do? It’s my fate. I’ve been at this pagoda for 12 or 13 years. Recently I started getting more ill, and so now I can’t join the religious events.”
Experts want the government to provide geriatric healthcare and a universal pension.
Annie Nut, an adviser to the non-profit organization HelpAge Cambodia, says such help is critical because of the increased responsibilities carried by many grandparents.
“Because of course when you migrate to the city or to another country it is very difficult - especially as a low-qualified laborer or worker - to bring your own children because their services are very expensive and renting a house is out of the question. So the grandparents have to take care of the grandchildren at home, and they also have to be the guardian of the households and the crops,” said Nut.
HelpAge has, with government support, set up 400 village-level groups to foster volunteer care of the elderly at the community level.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party has proposed a $10 monthly pension and free healthcare for the elderly.
Opposition legislator and former minister of women’s affairs, Mu Sochua, speaks of a moral obligation to help.
“As I say, our culture elevates the elderly. We look up to the elderly - and for what they have gone through with Pol Pot and they have survived, the least the [future] government of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the least thing we can do is provide them with that minimum package starting with $10 a month,” said Mu Sochua.
The clock is ticking: a baby boom at the end of the Khmer Rouge’s rule and a declining fertility rate mean that by 2050 the country will have more than 4 million senior citizens - a fivefold increase.