Healthy ageing will make society stronger
Ageing is a natural and inevitable process. For the past century mankind has been adding years to life. More people now survive the challenges of childbirth and childhood to reach old age.
As the population ages, governments have to respond with policies whichensure elderlypeoplereceive sufficient care and support, and at the sametime are able to preserve their independence for as long as they can.
This trend is not restricted to the resource-rich countries but has become a global phenomenon including in the countries of Southeast Asia.
It has been estimated that around 142 million people or 8% of the population of the World Health Organisation's Southeast Asia Region are above the age of 60.
Thailand shows a similar trend. The total number of people over the age of 60 is projected to increase from 8.6 million or 13% of the total population in 2010 to around 15 million by 2025 and over 22 million by 2050.
There is an urgent need to focus attention on the ageing population because of the increasing proportion of elderly people in the total population.
Development and progress have brought about improved quality of life and increased life expectancy. Longer life is associated with chronic diseases and disabilities in old age. This affects the overall quality of life and poses a challenge for families, communities and national governments.
Traditional values and practices still occupy a key position where long-term care of the very old is concerned. However, with nuclear families replacing joint families and with a large rural to urban migration, often the old and the infirm are left at home.
These changing patterns of society are now affecting the age-old balance of care of the old and very old people at home.
The WHO is highlighting ageing as a rapidly emerging priority that most countries have yet to realise and address adequately.
Improving health in the cycle of ageing will require saving lives, protecting health and removing disability and pain.
This can be achieved through a combination of a healthy lifestyle throughout the course of life, an age-friendly environment and improved detection and prevention of diseases.
The journey into the uncharted realms of old age is an adventure of continual learning and adjustments. This journey begins even before a person is born, right from the mother's womb.
The nourishment and care that a mother and her unborn baby receive will determine how the newborn will fare in the world.
An encouraging physical, social and mental environment that ensures the wellbeing and growth of the infant will lead to healthy adolescence, adulthood and eventually, old age.
Promoting and living a healthy lifestyle across the life-course means an elderly population will continue to participate in social, economic, cultural, spiritual and civic affairs in addition to being physically active and economically independent.
A continuum of care and support will help ensure that ageing remains a healthy and fruitful experience and a journey of self-transformation, education and contribution.
Creating age-friendly environments and policies to engage the elderly population and exploit their vast potential will result in dignified ageing, allowing the elderly population to participate actively in family, community and political life, irrespective of their functional ability.
Thailand has taken important steps towards building an age-friendly society. Community-based health clubs for the elderly promote physical exercise and social inclusion.
Thailand also provides a social pension of 500 baht a month to seniors above 60 years of age.
Healthy ageing requires a significant paradigm shift in the way care is provided to the elderly population.
Age-friendly primary healthcare minimises the consequences of non-communicable or chronic diseases through early detection, prevention and quality of care, and provides long-term palliative care for those with advanced diseases.
Such intervention would need to be supplemented by affordable long-term care for those who can no longer retain their independence.
In Thailand, community- and family-based long-term care for the elderly was piloted in some provinces with help from the Japanese government.
In addition, 25 hospitals around the country have been piloting various approaches to building age-friendly hospitals to ensure the elderly are treated with dignity in hospitals.
Older women have special health needs as they outnumber and outlive older men. The average life expectancy for women in Thailand is 76.3 years compared to 69.5 years for men.
The WHO continues to work with members to strive towards an older world which will be healthy and exciting.
Dr Samlee Plianbangchang is the WHO Regional Director for Southeast Asia.