Ms. Wanla Kamnin operated a bustling beauty salon in the heart of Bangkok’s impoverished Klong Toei community for years. Her bubbly personality and proficiency as a hairdresser attracted women of all ages to her business, making the little shop a ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak environment.
Five years ago, Ms. Wanla received a medical report that shattered her world like a porcelain teapot falling off the top shelf. She had diabetes, and so began a cascading series of problems in her life. With her health declining, she had to shutter the business that she loved dearly.
After receiving the diagnosis, Ms. Wanla began having regular check-ups with the doctor who prescribed her a battalion of medicine to stop the disease. The doctor explained the dangers of diabetes and advised her on necessary dietary and lifestyle changes. Not fully grasping the doctor’s technical instruction, however, Ms. Wanla slogged on with the perilous habits that brought her to this point – a diet of desserts, sugary drinks, and sweet fruits like mangoes and durian.
Ms. Wanla continued visiting the doctor, but her medical reports revealed no improvements. She remained obese and her symptoms worsened. She soon developed intensely blurred vision caused by a condition called diabetic retinopathy. Her doctor began harshly criticizing her inaction in hopes of frightening her to change her habits before it was too late. Ms. Wanla admits she was scared but became paralyzed to change.
A Community Forgotten
The Klong Toei community quietly inhabits the shadows of Bangkok’s towering skyscrapers, extravagant shopping malls, and ambitious condominiums. Klong Toei, Bangkok’s largest slum, serves as a blunt reminder of the inequality that persists in Thailand. With an ever-expanding cityscape where a new mega-project seemingly breaks ground every day, Klong Toei remains hopelessly still.
The area is rife with social problems stemming from alcohol abuse, gambling, and divorce, all of which intersect to contribute to family strife and individual stress. For fifty-seven-year-old Ms. Wanla and other pre-seniors and seniors, health and poverty present the most prominent problems.
“We do not receive adequate healthcare and, at the same time, nobody cares to help us learn the behaviors that prevent non-communicable diseases,” said Ms. Wanla. “A lot of older people in this community, not only me, suffer from obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. We don’t know much about proper portions of rice, the risk of consuming too many carbohydrates, or how often we can eat dessert.”
The health problems experienced by Ms. Wanla are all too common in Thailand, where an alarming proportion of seniors suffer from non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as diabetes (15%) and hypertension (33%). NCDs cause the death of 393,000 Thai people every year (71% of all deaths), and the healthcare system struggles to provide adequate care to those in need. Without change today, the problems caused by NCDs will only accelerate, as seniors are expected to account for over 30% of Thailand’s total population within the next 15 years.
A Helping Hand
After seeing her health decline for several years, Ms. Wanla and her neighbors finally received help from people that cared when Kenan Foundation Asia and Pfizer selected Klong Toei as a target community in 2016 under the Pfizer Healthy Aging Society project, funded by the Pfizer Foundation. The three-year project (2016-19) is working to prepare pre-seniors (aged 45-59) and seniors for their elderly years by improving their knowledge about physical health, mental wellness, and financial literacy, thereby leading to positive behavioral changes that prevent NCDs and enable seniors to lead active, stress-free, and happy lifestyles.
Whereas Ms. Wanla’s doctor had scolded her behavior and tried to scare her into adopting healthier habits, Kenan’s staff looked to educate and inspire. Kenan’s training methods captured Ms. Wanla’s attention because they were fun, hands-on, and easy to understand. As her knowledge blossomed, she felt empowered to take control over her health. To ensure that Ms. Wanla and other community members were able to put their new knowledge into practice, Kenan’s staff made regular visits to Klong Toei to check-in and mentor project participants. Soon, she was examining nutrition labels to calculate her caloric intake, going for long walks, and participating in aerobics class. Ms. Wanla lost a substantial amount of weight and the effects of her once debilitating diabetic retinopathy were gone after only five months of the new routine.
“My health improved because I was inspired to change,” reflected Ms. Wanla with infectious joy. “Thanks to Kenan and the Pfizer Foundation, my neighbors and I no longer dread going to the doctor and dealing with medical issues.”
The Birth of a Change Agent
With her health in good shape, Ms. Wanla set out to improve her financial outlook by putting Kenan’s financial literacy training into action. Even before the project, she developed the habit of depositing 20 baht into a piggy bank after her daily spending. However, Kenan’s team of experts recommended that she reverse her habit – to save before spending. In addition, listening to the team’s advice of dividing her savings into different portfolios, she opened accounts devoted to saving specifically for medical emergencies, business, and retirement.
Since she has cut her spending and her savings have begun to pile up, Ms. Wanla has developed an ambitious goal. “I am now dreaming of buying a condominium as an investment. With the rent money, I could earn enough extra income to save for my future retirement,” Ms. Wanla said.
Ms. Wanla is once again a fountain of positivity, just as she was when she ran the hair salon, in a community where optimism is in short supply. Today, she serves as one of the project’s community change agents, which allows her to share her experience with her neighbors to inspire them to adopt healthy habits.
Ms. Wanla organizes community meet-ups to encourage her neighbors to learn about the importance of nutrition, exercise, and mental health. Judging by the number and diversity of participants, it’s safe to say that Ms. Wanla’s workshops have become a megaphone for healthy behavior as well as a source for community unity.
“It really makes me proud that I can inspire other community members to positively change their behaviors,” said Ms. Wanla glowing with happiness.