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Vietnam’s elderly fight ongoing battle against misery, loneliness

With 17 percent of the population 60 years or above, many struggle without pensions or a monthly allowance

Elderly Vietnamese couple, Dominic Tran Van Ha and his wife Mary Do Thi Suu, outside their home in Tran Yen district of the northwestern province of Yen Bai

Elderly Vietnamese couple, Dominic Tran Van Ha and his wife Mary Do Thi Suu, outside their home in Tran Yen district of the northwestern province of Yen Bai. (Photo: UCA News)

Published: July 28, 2023 11:26 AM GMT

Updated: July 28, 2023 12:04 PM GMT

Duong Thi Gio looks cadaverous and drawn, and is all alone in a shabby hut, just large enough for a bed and a small cupboard.

Gio, a farmer who has no retirement savings, lives off one million dong (US$42) per month from her son, who lives far away. The sum is not enough for her basic needs and medicines so she is sometimes given food by other people.

The 71-year-old widow from Quang Tri province’s Hai Lang district said she became homeless after she sold her house in 2018 and moved to live with her son’s family in the southern province of Binh Duong.

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She was made to do housework and look after her two grandchildren for years until severe osteoarthritis prevented that. Her daughter-in-law hired another woman to do it for her.

“I got lost in the shuffle and felt like being left out in the cold,” she said, adding that her son and his wife worked all day and returned home late, while their children spent much time playing with smartphones at home.

The elderly woman, in unkempt clothes, said she decided to move back to her home province last year and erected the tiny hut to live in.

Reliable statistics in 2019 showed that Vietnam had 11.4 million elderly people, accounting for 12 percent of the population.

Among them, 64 percent had no pension or social insurance benefits and had to depend on their relatives or work to make a living. Many lived below the national poverty line, meaning their monthly income was less than US$50.

The country, which stipulates the elderly as 60 years of age or older, has a rapidly growing aging population.

Four years ago, its elderly population was projected to rise to 12 percent by 2030 and to 25 percent by 2050. But as of February 2023, elderly people added up to 16,179,824, or 17 percent of the total population.

Dominic Tran Van Ha, who looks older than his 77 years, and his wife, are left with feelings of loneliness and misery in their tumbledown house in My Hung Parish in Tran Yen district of northwestern Yen Bai province.

“We live on small amounts from my children, godchildren and neighbors because we have no savings,” Ha, who is very thin, said.

He said he and his wife cannot claim living allowances from the government for the aged as they are still in their seventies. In Vietnam, those who have no retirement pension are entitled by law to a monthly allowance of 360,000 dong (US$15) upon reaching 80.

The former lay leader, who suffers from a heart ailment, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and other diseases, cannot walk now without crutches.

He offered all his farmland to his four children, six grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. They have no visible means of support, and some are already in poor health, he said.

His 75-year-old wife Mary Do Thi Suu said they were both hired to work at a wood factory which paid only 150,000 dong per day. That income stopped when the factory was closed in 2021.

“Now we are too old to do anything. We don’t have a clue about what our life will be, especially when we are at death’s door,” Suu said.

“We try to fill up our life with housework and daily prayers, that is the only way we keep ourselves occupied,” the small bent woman said.

She said they are in the same situation as other local elderly couples who are mostly alone and in poverty as their children live far away and cannot afford to support them.

Old people without pensions are not only wrapped up in misery and loneliness but become burdens to their relatives, according to Do Thi Dao from Da Nang.

Dao, whose five-member family lives in a 40-square-meter flat, said her family income dropped after she had to leave her job at a garment factory and look after her septuagenarian father who has been bedridden since a fall last year.

She said she could not afford to send him to a public center for elderly people or hire a person to tend him as it will cost her 7-10 million dong (US$298-426) a month.

She said only those who are homeless or have no relatives are admitted into care homes managed by religious organizations.

Her husband, who works for a local electricity firm earning 10 million dong per month, is the sole breadwinner. They are struggling to cover the school fees of their two children.

“We have no choice but to take care of our father as a way to show our filial duty to him,” the 42-year-old said.

She worries she and her husband will become a burden on their children when they get older.

“Poor people like us cannot escape the vicious cycle of life,” Dao said.

Saint Paul de Chartres sister, Léonard Huynh Thi An, who is in charge of the Elderly Loving Home in Da Nang, said many young people leave their old parents feeling depressed and lonely as they fail to understand them.

Young people are engrossed in their work and outside activities so they have little time for elderly people, who “have lots of free time but nothing to do and no one to talk with, and get worried about their failing health,” she said.

The nun said her care home, founded in 1996, provides free accommodation and health care for 36 elderly women aged between 70 and 100.

“They find inner peace and happiness and feel respected and loved here because they have opportunities to share their worries and feelings with people who are in similar situations,” Sister An said.

Mary Magdalene Nguyen Thi Suong from Caritas in Hue said many old people have to beg for food and money, collect scrap, and sell lottery tickets for a living.

Others have no homes and live in public places. Some even attempt suicide due to mental and physical suffering, Suong said.

“Caritas workers have been offering free food to 120 people in need since 2021 as a way to console them,” she said.

They also provide them with clothes, blankets and medicines and move them to safe places during the rainy season.

She said some parishes give opportunities to old people to lead a social life by arranging gatherings and activities where they meet and console one another.

Joachim Tran Van Thanh, head of the Thanh Binh parish council in Thua Thien Hue, said 30 people aged 65 and over, regardless of their background, attend a social club set up by the parish.

They meet to play chess, make friendly conversations, pay home visits to patients, and offer material support to one another.

Thanh said local Catholics including youths visit them, clean and repair their houses. They also honor them with ceremonies and gifts on their birthdays and on the Lunar New Year.

“All people get old so the elderly must be held in great respect by the community,” he said.


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