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Experts push for reforms and inclusive policies to bridge gaps

14 Nov 2023

Experts push for reforms and inclusive policies to bridge gaps

PETALING JAYA: Malaysia’s roadmap to becoming an aged nation must address key challenges such as employment, social security, inclusion, wellness and healthcare, say experts.

Public facilities, amenities and urban design must also be made more senior-friendly, they said, adding that fundamental shifts are necessary to prepare the country for its transition into an aged nation.

Malaysian Coalition on Ageing (MCOA) spokesman Cheah Tuck Wing said the government must come up with an action plan for successful ageing.

“They must first remove the perception or stereotyping of seniors as frail, unproductive, unhealthy and other negative notions,” he said.

Cheah said the plan must be comprehensive and cover health and wellness, learning, volunteerism, employment, housing, transport, public spaces, respect and social inclusion, as well as retirement adequacy, healthcare and aged care, protection for vulnerable seniors, and research.

The plan must also be jointly developed by government agencies, welfare and non-profit organisations, academia, businesses, and community and union leaders, with feedback from the public, he said.

Public facilities, amenities and urban design should be senior- friendly, said Cheah.

“Seniors want to lead active lives. We need to make public places safer and friendlier with better amenities.

“Local councils should increase lighting along pedestrian pathways and use non-slip flooring.

“Surfaces with grooves should be replaced so that wheelchair users can navigate these pathways easily,” he said.

Cheah also recommended that there should be ample handrails, while steps at stairs should be lower and wider, and have good colour contrast with warning signs if there is a sudden drop at the staircase.

Wheelchair access at hawker centres and eateries must also be improved, while signage with bigger fonts in public areas should be installed, he said.

He added that benches with backrests and handles at bus stops and shopping centres should be installed for seniors.

“There is also a need for more senior-friendly toilets in public places and the creation of more social spaces within residential areas to encourage social interactions in communities.

“The public transportation system and facilities also need to be improved further because currently they are not senior-friendly,” said Cheah.

Some of his suggestions included improving signage at train and bus stations, allowing seniors more time to board trains or buses, having shorter steps to board the bus or train, and ensuring that senior citizens, the disabled and pregnant women get to use the seats reserved for them.

“Sustained public education is a must,” he added.

Malaysian Research Institute on Ageing (MyAgeing) senior research officer Chai Sen Tyng said the National Ageing Blueprint (NAB) should provide a comprehensive overview of the situation to identify key gaps in the current policy responses and programmes.

He said this was because Malaysia had many laws, documents or blueprints relating to ageing and older persons – among them, the two national policies under the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry.

The first national policy was adopted in 1995, while the second national policy was adopted in 2011, said Chai, noting that the Health Ministry also developed and adopted its own National Health Policy for Older Persons in 2008.

“Reforms must be justified based on how present practices might be affected by changing demographics in the future.

“We are already witnessing many disruptive events, including the global Covid-19 pandemic that has exposed cracks in our economy, healthcare and social protection systems.

“If we are to prepare for an aged nation, we have to think about what kind of reforms and improvements have to be adopted,” he said when contacted.

Chai also said that the NAB should focus on key impact areas such as health, economics and social protection.

Possible insights on the rapid demographic shift in the everyday lives of Malaysians, be it on social relationships or care issues or income security in later life, could also be included, he said.

Meanwhile, for effective coordination and transformative reforms, there is a need to involve more ministries and agencies, such as housing and local government, transport, as well as employment and finance, for greater vertical and horizontal alignment.

“This is because issues like pension or social protection reforms cut across the traditional purviews of the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry and the Health Ministry, as population ageing is not a welfare or health matter only,” he said.

Chai said that while Malaysia had limited resources and competing interests, this should not be a major deterrent to positive changes.

“An age-friendly environment is not just physical, but also socioeconomic and cultural. It is also about the public mindset and the priorities of businesses.

“I think we need careful deliberations and more public consultations on the pathways this country will take to ensure the well- being of Malaysians of all ages.

“I do not see that an older person would want very different things out of life than a younger adult, but their priorities and preferences might not be the same.

“So when they build age-friendly cities, communities and societies for all ages, we are talking about how we can create spaces where everyone can co-exist and thrive in an environment that supports well-being from a life-course perspective.

“We tend to forget the elderly people of tomorrow have already been born and are among us, including you and me, so the question here is really about the kind of future we want for ourselves in old age,” said Chai.

He added that Malaysia should learn lessons from other developed countries’ experiences and not be afraid to chart a course best suited to the people’s current situation and needs.

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