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Keys to reaping the benefits of higher life expectancy

“The challenge for the future is ‘to ensure that people everywhere can grow old with security and dignity and that they can continue to participate in social life as citizens with full rights’. At the same time ‘the rights of old people should not be incompatible with those of other groups, and reciprocal intergenerational relations should be encouraged.” - United Nations, World Population Ageing 1950-2050, Population Division

The first batch of baby boomers in Singapore reached the age of 65 in 2012, and the number of Singaporeans aged 65 years or older will double from 440,000 today to around 900,000 in 2030. But it is not just Singapore that is ageing; the same trend is seen across the world. Globally, the proportion of people in a country who are living longer is growing rapidly. According to the United Nations, by 2050, the number of older persons in the world will exceed the number of young for the first time in history.

Increasing life expectancy

Economic progress during the post-World War II period has generally led to an improvement in life expectancy across countries, although at different pace. During the early non-industrialised periods, deaths were spread out across the ages and the uncertainty was high as to whether one would survive past mid-life. However, economic progress has brought about improvements in living standards with better nutrition and access to better sanitation, and the risks of epidemic of infectious diseases have also reduced tremendously. Advancements in healthcare and medical technologies also played a huge role in accelerating the pace of this transition. Research on whether there is a natural limit to life expectancy has been inconclusive and it remains to be seen as to whether medical and technology breakthroughs can further increase human lifespan.

With these improvements, people are living longer into old age. Notably, the improvement in life expectancy has been rapid in the developed East Asian societies where countries, such as Japan, enjoy among the highest life expectancy internationally.

While Singapore’s life expectancy falls slightly behind Japan, the pace of increase in life expectancy has been catching up and is projected to rise faster than that of Japan.

Along with other developed countries such as Japan, South Korea and Australia, Singapore has managed to achieve one of the highest life expectancies in the world.

While Singapore’s current life expectancy falls slightly behind Japan, the pace of increase in our life expectancy has been catching up and is projected to rise faster than that of Japan. According to data from the United Nations, Singapore's life expectancy increased by 0.2 per year over the last decade (2000-2010) and is projected to increase by 0.1 per year over this decade (2010-2020) . In comparison, Japan's life expectancy increased slower at 0.08 per year over the last decade and is projected to continue at the same rate in this decade.

One key reason for our rapidly increasing life expectancy is the concerted effort to detect illnesses early and raise awareness on preventive medicine. The medical community in Singapore has been proactively propagating the advantages of regular medical check-ups and early detection of life-threatening diseases. Dr Ravinder Singh Sachdev, Consultant Family Physician, Department of Continuing and Community Care, Tan Tock Seng Hospital asserts, “The early detection of chronic diseases is crucial to an increased lifespan.”

What is your life expectancy?

Have you wondered how long will you live? There are many factors that could affect your life expectancy. Age, gender and genetics are among the key determinants of one’s longevity.  Read more.

The increasing life expectancy coupled with declining fertility trends experienced by many developed societies will increase the pace at which a society ages. The fast pace of ageing means that we have to plan now to ensure that our policies, programmes and institutions are equipped to cope with the changes that will come our way. Some changes such as mindset shifts towards ageing will also require a longer runway and we need to act upon them now. Read more about Singapore’s pace of ageing and what it means for us here.

Coping with an ageing population

With medical and community support, seniors can lead active and productive lives well into their later years. However, it is important to recognise that ageing can be productive only when accompanied by good health.

"The best advice I can give people who are approaching old age is to stay active and eat a balanced and healthy diet,” says Dr. Sachdev. “Also, I urge everyone to go for regular check-ups as the early detection of chronic diseases is crucial to an increased lifespan."

Dr Sachdev’s advice for ageing well: stay active, eat a balanced diet

Dr. Sachdev believes that “Singapore’s healthcare system can benefit from having one coordinated healthcare practitioner looking after seniors’ needs. Regular check-ups are left to the discretion of the individual and cost money, which is a disincentive. This deters people from going for regular check-ups to assess the state of their health and prevents the early detection of diseases. “

With good health comes the ability to engage in productive activities well past the 60-year mark.

Seniors such as Esther Ma, a clerk with law firm Tan Rajah & Cheah espouse the value of keeping busy by continuing to work as long as they can. “I’ve been with my firm for more than 20 years,” says Ma, 78. “I enjoy working and the income is very useful.” She says the firm and her younger colleagues support her actively. “It is not always easy to keep up with younger colleagues, but my colleagues and the head of the accounts department are always available for help and clarifications. The firm is very understanding about giving me work that I can handle. The workday is always manageable.”

Esther Ma, 78 years old, clerk at Tan Rajah & Cheah

Seniors are immensely valuable to society itself.

Research indicates that developed societies with a high proportion of seniors tend to see an increase in volunteering activities as older people have the time and inclination to be deeply engaged in their communities. Derrick Chiang, 62, is self-employed as a limousine driver, and often works a 10-hour day. However, both he and his wife find that volunteering keeps them young and active. They volunteer at the Church and with a non-profit that counsels married couples. Says Chiang, “We have been doing this for 10 years now. Such involvement in the community gives me something valuable to devote my time to outside of work.”

Derrick Chiang, 62 years old, self-employed limousine driver; pictured here with his granddaughter

Chiang urges the government to think of ways to encourage the elderly to stay active and contribute meaningfully to society. “As our society ages, there should be more of such opportunities created for the elderly; opportunities that allow the elderly to feel that their contributions to society are valuable. The biggest gift to an ageing society is to get rid of the negative stereotypes about old age.”

Contributions to the society can start small, for example, from within the family. Grandparents who are caring for their grandchildren while the parents are at work, or even double up as nanny to look after other children, play important roles in supporting dual-income families and strengthening intergeneration bonds. Society has to recognise the contributions of seniors, whether in providing informal familial or caregiving support, or being employed in the workplace.

The way to a society that ages with dignity …. lies in creating a kinder, more respectful society that recognises the value of seniority.

Eunice Tan, a Financial Planner with GenRiver Financial also cautions seniors about financial and retirement planning.

“In my experience as a financial planner, I don't think people start preparing early enough for their retirement,” says Tan. “Most people don’t know the answer to the question: ‘How much do I need for my retirement?’ We need clear financial adequacy tools to help people address such questions. I think the government needs to make a greater effort in this area.”

Tip from financial Planner Eunice Tan: Plan early for retirement

The way to enabling ageing with dignity also lies in creating a kinder society that is respectful of seniors. Says Ma, who comes to work a whole hour earlier so she can get a seat on the MRT. “I do wish that people would be more considerate to seniors, such as offering them a seat on the train and buses.” The responsibility lies with us as individuals to ensure that the seniors feel like a valuable part of our society.

Looking ahead

Indeed, a longer life gives us more years and opportunities to lead fulfilling lives, and this privilege should be embraced by self, family and society at large. Ageing is a biological process but it is also a psychological one. While it is important that individuals maintain healthy behaviours, such as eating a balanced diet and sticking to a regular fitness regime, equally crucial is the effort to stay busy and mentally active, by being involved in the community and workplace.

Is Singapore reaching the ceiling of our life expectancy, or is sky the limit? Read on to find out how many centenarians are there in our population!

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