Go to just about any secondary city, small town, or rural village in Thailand and you’ll notice something peculiar: nearly an entire generation is absent. You’ll see plenty of elderly people chatting outside their homes and young children playing in the schoolyard, but working aged adults are scarce. With few economic opportunities available, many adults have fled their hometowns to find jobs in Bangkok or the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC), leaving their elderly parents and children behind.
The vast movement of people coincides with a rapidly aging population in Thailand, and the intersection of these challenges results in a situation in which there is a large number of seniors without adequate emotional, physical, or financial support.
Filling the gap in elderly care is hard. The state’s budget is stretched thin, and senior’s children are simply too far away to meet all their parents’ needs. That’s why empowering selfless individuals like Nualchan Pon Sai will be critical if Thailand is to overcome its demographic challenge.
Nualchan, you see, is a public health volunteer in Ubon Ratchathani, a province situated along the Lao and Cambodian border in northeast Thailand (or Isaan) that typifies the aforementioned trends occurring outside of the country’s economic hubs. As a volunteer, she dedicates hundreds of hours and bundles of energy each and every day to helping community members get the health support they need. Nualchan’s support comes in many forms, from connecting individuals to the right doctor to making home visits to bedridden seniors.
“As a volunteer, I get to return the favor to the nation that I was born in and contribute to society,” says Nualchan. “I help doctors and my friends. I love what I’m doing.”
Despite Nualchan’s overflowing heart and remarkable dedication, she needs and deserves support so that she can provide the best care possible. Having dropped out of school after the fourth grade, Nualchan, like many health volunteers, has limited formal education and her healthcare knowledge comes primarily from firsthand experience from her own struggles with diabetes, as well as having a bedside view of her younger sister’s battle with advanced cervical cancer.
In 2017, however, Nualchan and the other health volunteers in Ubon Ratchathani finally received the help they wanted when Kenan and the Pfizer Foundation began implementing the Pfizer Healthy Aging Society project in the province. The project trained the volunteers on the essential, practical, and relevant knowledge that has enabled them to help community members overcome a wide-range of financial, mental, and physical health hurdles.
In particular, the project taught Nualchan to look for the unseen issues that affect the wellbeing of many seniors. Social isolation, for example, can be as deadly as smoking cigarettes, and when young adults leave the province to pursue economic opportunities, their parents are often left alone, greatly increasing the parents’ risk of depression.
“If the elderly are alone, they think a lot, become distracted, and feel lonely, which causes depression and makes them feel like they are a burden on others,” explains Nualchan.
Nualchan recognized that an older woman in her neighborhood seemed to be suffering from this very situation after her daughters moved away, and so Nualchan reached out and told her that if she ever feels lonely that she should come over to Nualchan’s house. Shortly thereafter, the woman began visiting every day, helping Nualchan prepare and sell food (Nualchan’s day job).
“After she started coming, her mental health improved,” says Nualchan. “We are bound together now, and I love her like a relative.”
Similarly, financial stress can have profound effects on the wellbeing of the elderly. Without savings and with limited income, seniors have nowhere to turn in the event of an emergency, be it medical or otherwise. After joining the project, Nualchan made a point of educating community members about the importance of financial literacy, in addition to diet, exercise, and other items commonly associated with “health.”
This effort, too, has paid off. Nualchan points to one woman who had been spending excessively on lottery tickets without considering the long-term implications on her financial health. Nualchan advised her to take the money she usually spent on lottery tickets and put it into a savings account instead. By ending one stubborn habit, the woman went from having “no money” to 60,000 Baht (US $1,960) in savings in a matter of months.
These examples have made it apparent to Nualchan that the holistic approach to healthcare introduced under the Pfizer Healthy Aging Society project can have a big impact on the lives of individuals. Today, Nualchan is wholeheartedly spreading the message about the importance of physical, mental, and financial health from person to person in Ubon Ratchathani and helping to reshape how the community cares for its seniors.
“Kenan’s project is excellent. Pfizer Healthy Aging Society is the right way forward,” says Nualchan. “I want the elderly to walk according to Kenan’s steps.”
Public health volunteers like Nualchan rarely receive public recognition for their sacrifice and generosity. And we shouldn’t undervalue their significance in helping Thailand’s expanding elderly population access the healthcare they need. Health volunteers really do transform lives, as Nualchan is quietly proving day after day.
To learn more about the Kenan’s work to identify scalable solutions to the challenges of aging society in Thailand, visit www.kenan-asia.org/nextgen-aging