You May Still End Up Alone: Case Study of Older Adults in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia

Chia Liu explores the living arrangements of the older population of Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia, using the latest Integrated Public Use Microdata Series International (IPUMS-I).

Globally, women are more likely to live alone in old age compared to men (United Nations, 2005). This is due to women marrying older men, which is then exacerbated by a shorter male life expectancy. Moreover, stigma is often attached to remarriage for women, more so than for men (Boomgaard, 2007). Although older persons in Asia are much less likely than their European or American counterparts to live alone due to social and cultural constructs that tend to emphasize on collectivist values (Detzner et al, 1999), remarkable differences still exist between men and women’s prospects to live alone in older ages (Esteve and Liu, forthcoming). The availability of IPUMS International microdata, which boasts individual and household level data with detailed living arrangements, gives us the opportunity to take a closer look at three Southeast Asian countries with recent data: Cambodia 2008, Vietnam 2009, and Indonesia 2010.

Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia are situated in Southeast Asia, a region starting to show signs of ageing in the recent years due to the decline of fertility and to a lesser degree, the decline of mortality (Natividad, 2008), despite lagging behind East Asia in demographic transition. Such phenomenon is particularly alarming in many countries in Asia due to the traditional practice of expecting children, instead of the state, to be the primary caretaker of the elderly (Esteve and Liu, forthcoming; Park, 2011).

The analysis of living arrangement of older adults in Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam will focus on descriptive statistics. I will begin with the percentage of individuals 65 or older living alone. Then, I will explore the age differences between older couples to evaluate the opportunities for spousal and intergenerational co-residence. Lastly, we will shift our focus on four types of living arrangements: living with spouse with no child in the household, living with a child and without a spouse, living with both spouse and child, and not living with spouse nor child.

The vast majority of seniors in Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia do not live alone. In all three countries, far fewer older men live alone compared to women. In Indonesia, 5 percent of men live alone, compared to 16.9 percent women. The figures are similar in Vietnam, where 5.5 percent of older men and 15.5 of women live alone. Seniors are least likely to live alone in Cambodia, showing 2.3 percent of men and 6.3 percent of women residing solo.

Older men in Cambodia, Indonesia, and Vietnam are 6, 8, and 4 years respectively in median age older than their spouses. Both Cambodian and Vietnamese older women are 2 years younger while Indonesian women are 4 years younger, in median, than their husbands. A clear difference between the sexes is evident in Figure 1, which depicts the percentage of population 65+ by the age difference with one’s spouse. Women, in all three countries, hover on the left side of the zero line, showing that they tend to be younger than their spouses. On the other hand, men overall tend to marry younger woman, with a small percentage marrying much younger women. The data does not specify whether a marriage is the first or second marriage. Since the data is based on co-residence and not marriage records, women who are 65 years or older who have married much older men are likely to no longer reside with them, as the spouses are presumably no longer alive.


Figure 1. Percentage of 65+ men and women by age difference with spouse

The percentage of seniors living with a child without a spouse, living with a spouse without a child, living with a spouse and a child, and living neither with a child nor with a spouse in Cambodia, Indonesia, and Vietnam, by sex, is shown in Figure 2. In all three countries, men are far likelier than women to reside with a spouse. Despite ethnic, cultural and social differences, the three countries show remarkable similarities with one another in residential patterns by sex among older people. Other than the fact that women marry older men, and men tend to have shorter life expectancy, war and conflicts in the region also posed demographic challenges. Years of violence and turmoil in Cambodia led to a skewed sex ratio of 67 men to every 100 women among 60+ which created the situation for most men to remain married, while most women are widowed (Zimmer et al, 2005). Similar sex ratio imbalance is suffered by Vietnam, which for decades lost men to war, re-education camps, executions, slave labors, and famine throughout its toughest periods during and following the Vietnam War (Hirschman et al, 1995). In Indonesia, although reliable estimates are hard to come by, the Indonesian killings of 1965-1966, which led to the deaths of possibly up to a million individuals (Cribb, 2002) may have demographic impact on the sex ratio of the elderly.

Figure 2. Percentage of 65+ men and women by household composition

Considering the fact that elderly men in the sample marry younger women, and much younger in some cases, it is no surprise that those children from such unions are likely to be younger than the children of women 65+ in the sample. Therefore, elderly men have more opportunity to reside with their younger, living spouse, and also have a higher likelihood to live with both their spouse and child compared to women in the same age group. In the case of Cambodia, over half of the elderly men reside with both their spouse and their child in the form of a dual parent household, when only roughly 17 percent of women live in the same type of household, as shown in Figure 2. However, intergenerational co-residence for elderly women is more likely to take place when the husband is no longer around. Indonesia and Vietnam show a similar picture. The individuals living with neither a spouse nor a child tend to live with other relatives, such as a grandchild, because solo living for the elderly remains to be uncommon in Southeast Asia, especially in Cambodia.

Population ageing is certainly not an issue that concerns only Southeast Asia. Europe and America are experiencing severe population ageing at a much faster pace. However, in many countries in Europe, pension systems and social programs are firmly in place to allow solo residence. For example, up to 39% of Danish and 35% Dutch seniors 60+ live alone in 1994, compared to a mere 7.3% in Indonesia in 1997, as reported by the United Nations. In comparison, most Asian countries are still unprepared for the impending dilemma of having too few adult children to support too many seniors while well-functioning pension systems are not yet in place (Park, 2011). Intergenerational co-residence can be partially explained by filial obligations as part of family values deeply entrenched in many Asian countries (Esteve and Liu, forthcoming), but demographic, economic and social realities also play a role in whether an elderly person is able to live alone and remain self-sufficient.

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