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Challenges towards happiness among our senior citizens

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Social isolation and loneliness are common among senior citizens, leading to unhappiness (Matt Bennett - Unsplash)

By: Assoc. Prof. TPr Dr. Goh Hong Ching

20th March witnesses the annual celebration of the International Day of Happiness. Tracing back its emergence, was the adoption of a resolution in the UN General Assembly in 2012 which decreed that an International Day of Happiness should be observed annually on the 20 March on the basis that, happiness and well-being are universal goals and aspirations of human lives globally.

Assoc. Prof. TPr Dr. Goh Hong Ching

In conjunction with the celebration this year themed ‘Reconnecting for Happiness: Building Resilient Communities’, the World Happiness Report is a partnership of Gallup, the Oxford Wellbeing Research Centre, the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and the WHR’s Editorial Board. published by the Wellbeing Research Centre at the University of Oxford, UK. This year World Happiness Day’s theme aims at happiness for the young, the old, and everyone in between.

As of 2024, Malaysia was ranked 58th out of 143 countries in terms of life evaluation 2021-2023, as compared to ASEAN member countries including Singapore (30th), Philippines (53rd), Vietnam (54th), Thailand (57th), Indonesia (80th), Laos (104th), Myanmar (118th) and Cambodia (119th). Among the criteria used include GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom, generosity, and corruption. Ranking based on age groups was revealed. Malaysia, was ranked at 64th for age group below 30 years (as compared to Thailand 45th) and at 71st for age group above 60 years old (Thailand 41st, Philippines 43rd and Singapore 26th).

In conclusion, Malaysia citizens aged 60 years and above were the least happy group in the country, while the young group (<30 years old) were the happiest as compared to the lower and higher middle age groups. As quoted in the WHR 2024, In the Seven Ages of Man in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, ‘the later stages of life are portrayed as deeply depressing’. The Malaysian happiness ranking by age group seems to be able to relate to this quote.

Not surprisingly, we witness from our neighbourhood, read in the social media and press articles, among factors that may contribute to senior citizens being the least happy group in the country include the following.

1.            Financial insecurity, which can result from ineffective financial management after retirement, insufficient savings, low retirement benefits, and lack of awareness, thus limiting access to various pension schemes which are only available in more recent years. This financial strain can make it difficult for them to afford basic items such as healthcare, housing, and food.

2.            Limited access to healthcare facilities, long waiting times, and high out-of-pocket expenses also pose barriers to receiving timely and appropriate medical care.

3.            Social isolation and loneliness are common among senior citizens in Malaysia, especially those who live alone or have limited social support networks. This is even more significant in rural areas where many of the children migrated to cities for better job opportunities. This can have detrimental effects on their mental health and well-being, leading to a wide range of psychosocial issues including depression and anxiety.

4.            Age discrimination in employment and societal attitudes can limit opportunities for senior citizens to remain active and engaged in the workforce and community life. Negative stereotypes about aging can contribute to social exclusion and diminish older adults’ sense of dignity and self-worth.

5.            Providing affordable and suitable housing options that are age-friendly and accessible is a challenge for many elderly individuals in Malaysia. The limited availability of affordable housing and the absence of essential accessibility features, along with inadequate infrastructure, create significant obstacles for older adults who wish to age in place comfortably.

6.            Senior citizens in Malaysia are at risk of various forms of mistreatment, including financial exploitation, neglect, and physical or emotional abuse. The lack of awareness, social stigma, and cultural barriers can prevent victims from seeking help or reporting abuse, making it crucial to establish legal protections and rights for senior citizens, such as access to justice and protection against discrimination and mistreatment, to ensure their wellbeing and dignity.

7.            Transportation and mobility can be hindered for senior citizens due to limited access to reliable and affordable transportation options, making it challenging for them to access essential services, social activities, and healthcare facilities.

8.            The digital divide can limit elderly individuals’ access to digital technologies and the internet, which can restrict their ability to stay connected, access information, and take advantage of online services, such as telemedicine and e-commerce.

As these factors are general, it is important to understand the dynamics of happiness among a wide range of age groups (and other demographic profile such as education, marital status, gender) at different geographical distribution (e.g., urban-rural) apart from the income level (which needs to be mapped with the cost of living). Furthermore, these factors reveal the existing challenges and barriers to happiness.

Thus, identifying these factors will provide opportunities for improvement and contribute to the happiness index among our senior citizens. It also helps the local authorities, urban planners, and welfare-focus organizations to formulate more targeted and holistic strategies to create a more inclusive society by looking at the inequality of happiness more closely.

Senior citizens are the greatest treasure of family, society, and nation with an immense ocean of knowledge, experience thereby wisdom which serves as a guidepost for the younger generations. This value is deeply rooted in oriental culture and a value that should be preserved.

And most of all, remember: we all get old one day.

The author is an Associate Professor at the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, Faculty of Built Environment, and Chair of Social Advancement and Happiness Research Cluster, Universiti Malaya. She may be reached at gohhc@um.edu.my

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