Singapore’s stressed singles — Chew I-Jin and Mao Ailin
MAY 15 — The annual International Day of Families today was established by the United Nations in 1993 to mark how changing social, economic and demographic processes impact families around the globe.
On this 19th anniversary, it is encouraging to note that recent Budget-related statements by members of Parliament recognise that better support is needed for different forms of the Singaporean family, which include single parents, divorced parents, foreign spouses of Singapore citizens and fathers who want more caregiving opportunities.
Why do families exist? For caregiving, not just procreation. Indeed, procreation without adequate caregiving leads to many social problems.
Diverse forms of the family provide care. Apart from nuclear families, there are single-person-headed households, patchwork families (resulting from divorce and remarriage) and, increasingly, multi-generational families in which singles (unmarried and childless) look after elderly parents.
Population statistics show a steady rise in singlehood. In 2000, 33.3 per cent of males and 21.9 per cent of females aged 30-34 years were single. This increased to 43.1 per cent of males and 30.6 per cent of females in 2010. Meanwhile, “the proportion of residents aged 65 and above increased from 7.2 per cent in 2000 to 9.3 per cent in 2011” (Population in Brief 2011).
These statistics are related. Increasingly, the elderly are cared for by unmarried children, mostly daughters. The 1995 National Survey of Senior Citizens in Singapore showed singles constituted 24 per cent of family caregivers caring for those aged 65 and above. This has increased to 26 per cent, according to a Ministry of Health report last year.
Women constitute 74 per cent of those caring for the elderly, according to an NUS Social Work Report of Singapore Family Caregiving in 2006.
Describing single caregivers of the elderly, Dr Kalyani Mehta, head of gerontology programme, UniSIM, said: “Many of them are not ‘swinging’ singles but ‘stressed’ singles, who are juggling work and caregiving responsibilities.”
In shaping policies for Singapore’s rapidly greying population, we must ensure single adults caring for elderly parents do not slip through the cracks.
Recent Budget support for single caregivers — including subsidies for home-based care and domestic foreign helpers for elderly parents, assistance through Medisave top-ups and GST vouchers — are laudable. But are these enough?
The 2006 NUS Report of Singapore Family Caregiving states that 25 per cent of family caregivers express concern about their worsening financial situation. Fifty-five per cent of healthcare expenditure in Singapore is funded out of pocket, compared to only 30 per cent in Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea, according to a 2012 paper on inequality and the new social compact, presented at the Institute of Policy Studies.
Are parents to rely largely on the income of working children for long-term caregiving?
More effective approaches could include universal Medishield and risk-pooling across all age groups to provide more affordable healthcare coverage for older persons; and waiving levies for hiring foreign domestic workers to assist low-income caregivers, especially singles who work to support elderly parents. Also, childcare leave could become “caregiving leave” for all dependents, enabling single caregivers — some without siblings — to care for ill elderly dependents or take them to a doctor.
Further, more retiring Singaporeans — including those who have made tremendous personal sacrifices to care for elderly parents — now live alone: From 6.6 per cent in 2000 to 7.7 per cent in 2005, according to a Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports Report on the State of the Elderly in Singapore in 2009.
Among the elderly living in HDB estates, those living with friends or relatives (not immediate family) have almost doubled from 3.3 per cent in 1998 to 6.4 per cent in 2008.
These, too, are families, bound by ties of care and compassion, rather than obligations of kinship. It is time to recognise that caring for one another is the basis of families. Family policies should not be premised solely on relationships of blood or marriage.
On this International Day of Families, it is worth reflecting on how such policies can better support singles — those who are caregivers as well as those who receive care — and their families. Only then can we become a truly inclusive and caring society. — Today
* Chew I-Jin and Mao Ailin are co-chairs of the Association of Women for Action and Research’s (AWARE) Singles In Singapore sub-committee.
* This is the personal opinion of the writers or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.