Elderly workforce

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 April, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 April, 1998, 12:00am

Regular exercise is the finest recipe for health in old age. It strengthens the heart, improves the circulation, maintains suppleness and keeps the mind alert. But there are better ways for the elderly to get a daily workout than by hauling a trolley through the traffic, picking up cardboard boxes. It really does make a mockery of the much vaunted respect for old age in this society, if we cannot spare enough money to feed senior citizens. In the third world, any 80-year-old without family to maintain them will expect to toil from dawn until bedtime every day in order to keep themselves in food. But this is an affluent society, one which is prone to self-congratulation about its family values and its sense of community.

The harsh reality, as shown in a survey compiled by the Society for Community Organisation, is cause for deep shame. It detailed the lives of 39 people of pensionable age still working round the clock as the only way to stave off debt, while allowing them to hang on to their modest lifetime savings. A full-scale official survey would show thousands more. The spectacle of a frail old lady, stooping at the kerbside to load a sheet of cardboard on a broken-down barrow is a characteristic sight here. But it is not one which will find its way into the tourist brochures.

With such meagre earning power, the $380 increase in the elderly's monthly government allowance of $2,060 will make budgeting easier, but it is by no means adequate for their needs. People who have saved all their lives are caught in the poverty trap by spiralling prices. If they dip into their nest egg, it cannot be replenished, and they are plagued by worries about falling ill and needing medical care.

No one should be forced to live on $2,440 a month in this costly city. If the officials who allocate these payments tried to live it for a month, they might be more realistic in fixing the amounts. People who have worked for 50 years are entitled to rest from their labours for at least half the week. Rightly, taxpayers reject a handout culture with subsidies for the able-bodied. But it is a deficient society which does not protect the frail, the aged and the poor.