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Aging in Thailand: Takeaways From a Year Abroad

Sunday at the races, together.

They clutched their binoculars and scribbled notes in their programs. They paced behind the teller windows and snagged seats just before post time. Some spent the day on their own, but most huddled in groups, talking stats, favorites and odds.

For the past year, I’ve studied aging at a population institute in Thailand. As a curious outsider — a farang (Westerner), as they say here — I’ve had the opportunity to observe aging, too. This weekend’s venue? A horse racetrack in central Bangkok.

The patrons were nearly all Thai men in their 60s and 70s or older. If naturally occurring retirement community (NORC) is what experts call an unplanned-yet-thriving residential area for older adults, this might qualify as a naturally occurring senior center (or NOSC?), a place for people to engage and connect. (And bet, too. I wasn’t born yesterday.)

Similar age-friendly spaces that have inspired me: public hot springs that I spied on a trip to Taiwan, and parks with built-in checkerboards, bocce ball courts and aerobics areas in Thailand. Whether they specifically cater to an older crowd, they attract and enable people of all ages to come together.

Growing older may be a universal experience, but how we grow old differs across the globe, largely based on culture and on access to public spaces and health care, as well as economic security, housing options and more. Living and learning abroad has given me a chance to witness different ways that people experience life as they age.

In Thailand, I was surprised to discover that:

Retirement is mandatory. At age 60, government employees and workers for mainstream businesses are forced to step down, even if they want to continue to work.

Interdependence trumps independence. In the United States, notions of freedom and autonomy are in our DNA. But who, exactly, is 100 percent independent? People in Thailand are open about giving and receiving support — and that’s freeing.

Neighbors are family. Most older people age in place because nursing homes and other facilities are few and far between, and children live with them or nearby. In fact, recent survey figures show that nearly 60 percent of older Thai adults co-reside with a child.

Many people live on less than $20 a month. Sure, cost of living is different in Thailand, but this figure shocked me: Eleven percent of older Thai adults rely on the government’s very minimal “older persons allowance” as their main source of income. People ages 60 to 69 receive 600 baht (about $17) per month. The amount increases by 100 baht ($3) each decade (70-79, 80-89, etc.).

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Overall, my year abroad opened my eyes, and I’m so thankful for that. It also made me realize how lucky we are at home. Congress passed the  Social Security Act in 1935 and the Older Americans Act in 1965, 50 years ago this month. Our system is far from perfect, but we have an infrastructure of services (e.g., home-delivered meals, job training) the likes of which don’t even exist in many parts of the world. And that’s a good thing.

Photo: Laura Hahn

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