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Singapore handling the ageing population challenge better than Japan: Ageing expert

Singapore and Japan have the oldest populations in the world, and both face similar challenges in managing the issue.

But if you ask ageing expert Professor Hiroko Akiyama, Singapore is doing a much better job at tackling the problem.

For one thing, Singapore had a head-start in planning for an ageing population. On this front, Singapore has been pushing hard to keep seniors active and engaged in their community. The Action Plan for Successful Ageing has outlined key initiatives that is aimed at keeping seniors meaningfully engaged across a range of activities, from volunteer work, working longer and returning to school to pick up new skills.

The social psychologist from the Institute of Gerontology at University of Tokyo says another reason is that Singapore has a more open approach to immigration.

For one thing, the ageing population means that the workforce is gradually shrinking. Allowing for foreigners to take up the jobs that are not being filled will continue to sustain the economy. At the same time, foreign talent also injects new sources of innovation and entrepreneurship into the economy.

“I think Singapore is doing an amazing job of attracting highly-skilled and highly talented foreign labour which is not just a boon for the economy but for the population as well especially with the inter-marriages and integration of migrants into the country,” she says.

Japan, on the other hand, has a much more restrictive policy towards foreigners. It is difficult for a foreigner to work in Japan, and if they do get a job, it tends to be on a limited basis, she says.

This in turn will have major implications on the Japanese economy.

When it comes to integrating foreigners into the country, Japan is still quite a far way off from Singapore. Naturally, this is further adding pressure onto its already rapidly declining population,” says Prof Hiroko.

“I think Singapore is generally an elderly-friendly nation. They’re trying, which is the most important thing.”

(Professor Akiyama (right), shared key findings about ageing and resilience from her longitudinal study of 6000 seniors over 25 years during the conference.)

Keeping seniors engaged

Prof Akiyama was speaking on the sidelines of the 8th Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) Population Ageing Conference  organised by The Centre for Ageing Research and Education (CARE) at Duke-NUS Medical School , during which she presented her 25-year long study on some 6,000 senior citizens across Japan and the United States.

The one major finding of the study is that at the age of 70, people start to experience a general decline of both their physical and mental faculties. This is true across the entire sample, she says.

But the good news is active and engaged seniors are able to slow the pace of decline and lead meaningful and happy lives well past their 70s, says Prof Akiyama.

“Since we now know that the magic number is 70, we need to move forward and focus our attention on the needs and wants of this demographic well before they reach that age. This means introducing schemes when they might be 60 or 65 so that they are well prepared by the time they reach that age,” she says.

In this regard, countries like Singapore can and need to pay attention to engaging seniors and getting them involved in activities in their 60s. This may involve creating job opportunities and activities that are catered to their needs, she says.

For instance, she introduced the Second Life Program to the city of Kashiwa. Aimed at matching seniors to relevant jobs based on their likes and preferences, the programme became a huge hit amongst seniors who were interested in re-joining the workforce.

“Once we got the elderly out of the house and engaged them in farming or even teaching kids, they got acquainted very quickly and they start making connections without any difficulty. When they feel like they can meet the needs of the community, they see life differently,” she adds.

The key, said Prof Akiyama, is to keep seniors engaged in various activities.

She acknowledges that it is a challenge for any government to manage its ageing population because there are few precedents. In many ways, both Japan and Singapore are moving into unchartered territory.

But one thing is certain: With the right policies in place, the push to keep our seniors engaged and productive will ensure that we can still remain a vibrant, inclusive and engaged society for all, regardless of age.

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