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Jul 02, 2022
For years, Japan has been home to the world’s oldest population, its aging workforce threatening its economic and technological might. Now, the city-state of Singapore is rapidly emerging as the next nation-sized retirement home — and it’s bracing for the attendant challenges. Its life expectancies — 81.5 years and 86.1 years for men and women, respectively — are among the highest in the world and, coupled with decreasing birth rates, have left Singapore with a rapidly aging population. Yet, not everyone is complaining. From businesses tapping into a fast-growing silver economy to government efforts to keep the country’s labor force intact, today’s Daily Dose explores Singapore’s race against time.
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Nearly a third of people in Singapore between the ages of 60 and 69, and more than 40% of those above 80, described themselves as “lonely” in a 2016-17 study. But if you ask businesses operating in the country, all these seniors need is… to shop. According to a 2020 report by the consultancy Aging Asia, Singapore’s silver economy will be worth US$72.4 billion by 2025.
The ‘silver lining’
Singapore’s Finance Minister Lawrence Wong last year declared that “it is on us to find the silver lining” to an aging population. That silver lining already exists, according to Carol Ma, who heads the gerontology programs at the Singapore University of Social Sciences. The nation’s “aging population is a rapidly growing consumer group which is creating opportunities for business development,” she said. From tailored healthcare services and food products to retirement homes and residential care to the elderly, firms are already exploring a market that grew by 80% in the past decade. And their innovations may surprise you.
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Both the Singapore government and the private sector are increasingly turning to artificial intelligence to help the elderly — a part of the nation’s “smart city” approach. SHINESeniors, a government project, monitors the physical environment — temperature, noise and daily living patterns — of senior citizens residing in public housing. In 2015, the Singapore government partnered with a publicly funded college to develop the Robocoach, a robot exercise instructor for the elderly. Singapore-based artificial-intelligence company Longway AI plans to develop a solution to predict and prevent falls at some senior-care centers. And AI-enabled app CARES4WOUNDS, launched byhealth startup Tetsuyu Healthcare, measures, analyzes and monitors the condition of a wound based on an image. It’s targeted at elderly diabetics with foot ulcers, who may face the risk of limb amputation if their wounds are not properly managed.
The young(er) help the old
But not all senior citizens are tech-savvy. According to a 2019 survey by the Infocomm Media Development Authority, 58% of Singaporeans over the age of 60 were internet users compared to 89% of the overall population. Recent research suggests some senior citizens are frustrated with new technologies and doubt their ability to learn and adapt. The solution could lie in getting relatively younger senior citizens to teach older ones how to use technology, said Ma.
Touch or technology?
But the dilemma for Singapore — and other societies dealing with aging populations — is deeper. “Technology cannot fully replace the high-touch of the caregiver,” acknowledges Reuben Khoo, CEO of home care and support company Home Instead Singapore, an independently owned franchise of Nebraska-based Home Instead Inc. But, he insisted, “there is a need to encourage more technological innovation to enable caregivers to be more effective and efficient.” He’s an advocate for improving caregiver capacity by marrying “hi-tech with high-touch,” such as when an in-person caregiver helps a patient connect with their doctor through a digital portal.
Where have all the caregivers gone?
Not a wanted profession
A recent study conducted by Home Instead and the Global Coalition on Aging, a social enterprise on aging policy and strategy, found that caregiving as a profession is undervalued by Singaporeans, even as the demand for a trained workforce in the sector is expected to grow by more than 130% over the next decade. “The public perception about caregiving as a profession needs to change. There should be better career prospects including employee welfare benefits for caregivers, and also opportunity for national accreditation,” Khoo said. Professional caregiving, he added, ought to be recognized as “critical.”
Aging at home
According to an independent study conducted by Lien Foundation, seniors surveyed in Singapore preferred to age in place — findings corroborated by the country’s Housing & Development Board. “Businesses should focus on building their capacity to assist seniors at home so that they can age in place with dignity,” Khoo said. “Plus, we will need to consider the financial model that will provide sustainability for long-term care at home,” he said, whether that’s insurance or government subvention. Khoo noted that seniors who stay socially engaged enjoy better health, happiness and an improved quality of life over their solitary counterparts.
Is co-living the answer?
If staying social helps the elderly live better, FARM, a multi-disciplinary architecture firm, might have a solution. It is designing senior nursing homes that will have more common areas where residents can interact — whether corridors or gardens — than traditional assisted-living facilities do. The project is targeted at a younger segment of senior citizens who are open to the concept of co-living. Khoo’s Home Instead provides “companion services” to the elderly, in addition to specialized nursing care.
In 2021, Singapore had one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, at 1.15 children per woman; the replacement rate is about 2.1. According to Ma, the government must focus on strengthening intergenerational communication and transfer of knowledge between school children and senior citizens. “We can train the school kids, who can visit the elderly at their homes regularly to build relationships,” she said. “Because of the low fertility rate, there will be a lot of opportunities for the younger generation to connect with the older generation.” In 2017, Singapore launched its first intergenerational playground and infant and childcare center within a nursing home, where the children and the elderly can interact, sing and paint together.
Looming economic crisis
Singapore’s low fertility rate has spawned concern for one of Asia’s strongest economies. For one thing, where is its future workforce? And there’s a second worry for this Southeast Asian nation. A 2019 survey found that most Singaporeans were financially unprepared for retirement, and many are seeking part-time work in retirement, such as with food delivery apps or at food courts. In 2021, the labor-force participation rate of Singapore residents aged 65 years and above was at 32.9%. Centre for Seniors, a nonprofit, runs a website where it posts jobs and training opportunities for retired Singaporeans.
Singapore’s solution? More work
This month, Singapore is raising the legal retirement age from 62 to 63, and then to 65 by 2030, when re-employment within the same job function after formal retirement will also be allowed up to the age of 70. Additionally, the Singapore government pays employers who are willing to raise their retirement age. The idea of this is to ensure jobs for the elderly who need them, and a skilled, experienced labor force for companies. “People who work after retirement are not a burden on the government,” Ma said. “They contribute to the economy. More opportunities should be created for them. Also, when people retire, they should rewire to do something that they can still maintain their quality of life.”
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