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Housing an Ageing Nation, Part 1

A preview of shelter insecurities faced by prospective senior citizens

As Malaysia becomes an ageing society, we discuss the housing challenges that future seniors face in order to age independently.

By Fikri Fisal14 April 2023

Malaysia is officially an ageing country, with 7.3% of its population expected to be 65 years old and older by the end of this year.1 Recent estimates also suggest that Malaysia will become an aged society by 2044 (when 14% of the population are aged 65 years or older) and a super-aged society by 2056 (20% of the population are aged 65 years or older). 

Traditionally, the task of caring for the elderly falls upon respective households. The Malaysia Ageing and Retirement Survey (MARS) 2018/2019, which was conducted by Universiti Malaya’s Social Wellbeing Research Centre (SWRC), found that 84.2% of respondents, all aged 40 years and above, live with their family members, mostly their unmarried children. 

This trend of informal familial care, however, may not be sustainable for long due to several factors. Firstly, household size has declined from 5.2 in 1980 to 3.8 in 2020. Secondly, the number of three-generational households has dropped from 41.1% in 2004 to 30.7% in 2016. Thirdly, the proportion of households with only older persons has increased 16.5% to 19% over the same period. 

Thus, prospective senior citizens may face difficulties in obtaining housing or shelter security as the propensity of informal familial care declines. They would have to explore ways to age independently by living alone or with a partner or fellow seniors. In fact, this shift towards independent ageing has already begun; a study by Sun Life Malaysia indicates that most respondents do not want to depend on their children after retirement. 

In this first instalment of the research series, we look into three urgent concerns regarding housing and shelter for current and prospective seniors as Malaysia approaches the status of an aged society. 

Future housing insecurities faced by prospective senior citizens

1. Lack of affordable and senior-friendly housing

The first problem is the lack of affordable and senior-friendly housing. Many affordable and recent housing developments in the Klang Valley, including PR1MA and other government-subsidised projects, are designed as “shoebox” units without including senior-friendly designs and features. 

Notwithstanding the limited floor area, these units are not catered to enable a safe and conducive elderly living. They lack senior-friendly features such as ramps, railings, low toilets and spacious bathrooms. The compound of the housing blocks also may lack safe pedestrian walkways and easy access to much-needed facilities such as healthcare facilities and public spaces (parks, etc.). 

The high car-dependency of neighbourhoods in urban areas also means that these housing developments are seldom well integrated with public transportation networks. Such designs pose a safety hazard for senior citizens, especially those suffering from debilitating conditions such as Alzheimer’s. Their ability to age independently is also curtailed as some seniors may lose the ability to drive due to physical effects of old age such as poor eyesight. 

Granted, some developers are beginning to realise the need and demand for senior-friendly housing as seen in a few projects such as The Green Leaf in Sepang, Green Acres in Ipoh and AraGreens Residence in Ara Damansara. Yet, the scale of implementation of such a concept is still small; it is also financially viable only for better-off households. One particular senior-friendly housing, for example, requires residents to submit a RM300,000 deposit to obtain a lifelong lease. There appears to be a lack of consideration and incentive to expand this concept to low-income households whose prospective senior citizens are arguably in greater need of housing security. 

2. Low social security for non-homeowners

Low social and financial security also pose serious challenges to prospective senior citizens, particularly non-homeowners. This group is vulnerable to unaffordable rental rates, whose market is dominated by private landlords as opposed to public entities within the Malaysian context. As these private landlords are presumed to be motivated by profit, the renters face high shelter insecurity if rental rates continue to be determined by market forces without any government stop-gap measure or intervention. 

SWRC’s MARS survey found that only 43.3% of respondents aged 40 years old and above own homes. The same study found that the median savings among respondents is RM10,520, indicating that half of the respondents have savings of less than RM10,000, which would severely limit their capability to rent their own house in the private market. 

The situation is aggravated by the insufficient retirement savings which became apparent in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic following several rounds of special EPF withdrawal schemes. EPF estimated that 73% of its members will not be able to meet the minimum Basic Savings threshold (RM240,000 at age 55) and that 46% of contributors below 55 have less than RM10,000 in their EPF accounts. Insufficient funds to live a comfortable life during retirement is cited as the biggest fear by 63% respondents in Sun Life Malaysia’s survey.

Taking into account long-term inflation effects, private rental rates are likely to increase, especially if long-term demand shifts away from homeownership. Without governmental intervention to control rental rates, many would face financial hurdles to secure comfortable and affordable housing during their senior years.*

*In our three-part Room for Rent research series, we elaborate on the need for more pro-rent policies in the country as renting becomes the only viable option for many Malaysians to fulfil their housing needs.

The lack of affordable senior-friendly housing as described earlier further compounds the challenges of independent ageing among low-income seniors. This increases the need for upping the supply of such houses, so that less well-off seniors can afford to enjoy financial and shelter security in their golden years. 

3. Inadequate Senior Care Facilities

Another issue that contributes to the shelter insecurity among future seniors is inadequate senior care facilities. Such premises have long existed as an option for residential and day care service for the elderly. However, these facilities, be they public or private, are currently inadequate to serve current demand. 

According to a 2016 World Bank report, public elderly care facilities in Malaysia can only accommodate 2,745 residents. Private care facilities are estimated to accommodate up to 30,000 residents – only about 5% of the projected potential demand. Bureaucratic red tape has also resulted in the proliferation of unlicensed elderly care homes which may pose a safety hazard due to unmet standards and requirements. 

There is also the question of access among less well off households. Private facilities, for example, are too expensive for a majority of households. According to a list compiled by the Association of Residential Aged Care Operators of Malaysia, prices for private aged care homes range from RM1,000 to RM2,000 in Kedah (for a twin room) to RM2,000 to RM3,000 in Putrajaya (for a triple shared room) per month. This price range is far above what a typical household can afford, considering that the median household income as of 2019 is RM5,873. 

Meanwhile, public care facilities suffer from a lack of sufficient public financing. The World Bank calculated that Malaysia’s public spending on aged care amounted to less than RM60 million from 2015 to 2019, accounting for 0.01% of the country’s GDP, which is unsurprisingly lower than most developed countries. The average cost of long-term care among OECD countries is 1.5% of GDP.  

The weaknesses of both public and private elderly care facilities indicate that resources will be more efficiently allocated to a third category of care provider, private not-for-profit organisations. These organisations mostly comprise NGOs and religious organisations, and are highly dependent on public donations. They mostly offer home and community-based elderly care centres, but their number is still too low to be depended on as a long-term solution to prospective seniors’ housing insecurity. 

Moving Forward 

The topic of elderly care is still considered sensitive within the Malaysian cultural context. However, society cannot afford to put off discussion on the topic anymore and must begin to consider alternative modes of elderly care away from the current informal familial care solution, be they institutionalised care or independent ageing models. 

Given the drastic inadequacy of senior care facilities and housing currently, it would be unrealistic to expect the government to shoulder the main responsibility to care for the future elderly. And that is why perhaps it is better for the government to begin enacting policies that promote independent ageing instead, which is fiscally more bearable and achievable. 

Such policies should attend to both the physical and social needs of senior-friendly housing – the former namely the physical design of housing, to ensure that there is minimal mobility restriction and health hazard to old-aged residents. Senior-friendly housing should also include public spaces that enable residents to live and age comfortably and independently, as well as good public transport connectivity and walkability, among other things. 

On the social dimension, these housing complexes must enable residents to pursue social activities and form social relationships among themselves (e.g. gardening, exercising, weaving, cooking). These social activities can also be included as part of local community programmes to encourage residents to interact with and contribute to their surrounding communities. 

Housing is only one aspect of senior living and the ageing process. It is however one of the most vital. With shelter security, seniors will not only be able to live safely and comfortably, but also make active contributions to society. We hope that the government can kickstart the process of drafting a comprehensive policy framework on elderly housing and care to ensure that Malaysia is well-prepared to cope with its status as an ageing society. In the second part of this research series, we will focus on possible options that the government can explore to empower prospective seniors to obtain shelter security and thus age independently.

1 According to the United Nations, an ageing country is one whereby at least 7% of its population is aged 65 years and older. 

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