Thailand's 'dancing grannies' show there is life after 60

By: Alberto Potter
May 6, 2017

The Dao De Xin Xi classes, a simplified version of tai chi, are among the most popular parts of the new government-sponsored programme for people over 60. (Photos by Pawat Laopaisarntaksin)

New 48-hour courses for the elderly in Bangkok on subjects ranging from nutrition and legal rights to a watered-down version of tai chi shows there is life after you retire while also addressing concerns tied to having one of the world's fastest-ageing populations.

Every Wednesday morning, a meeting room at Public Health Centre No.7 on Sathu Pradit Road turns into a classroom for the "Ageing Active" programme initiated by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA).

One of the more popular classes is Dao De Xin Xi, a simplified version of the Chinese martial art tai chi, that was created in Bangkok in 1998.

From 8am to 12pm, elderly people in the city can practise their breathing and improve their cardiovascular health and even digestive systems by taking classes in this gentle art, one of several classes on offer to help them socialise, exercise and learn new skills.

The course also teaches them how to make their homes safer and more convenient, a pressing concern as many elderly people suffer injuries from falls, said Lalita Wongpichedchai, acting chief of Public Health Centre No.7.

"The elderly should be able to take care of themselves and have a degree of [English] literacy," said Dr Lalita, adding that the course offers English classes, computer training as well as lectures and discussion groups. It is available to any Thai citizen aged 60 or over.

According to ageingasia.org, Thailand had the world's third most rapidly ageing population as of 2012, with the number of people aged 60 and over standing at roughly 8 million, or 13% of the population.

Wongwat Liulak, deputy director of Department of Health, said Thailand now stands on the threshold of an ageing society. Statistics show 17% of the population are now aged 60 or over, meaning one in four Thais is a senior citizen.

With this in mind, the government has adopted a more comprehensive ageing policy as the country faces an increase in healthcare costs among the elderly, as well as higher pension costs and a decline in the active workforce.

Course such as these are seen as part of the solution. The programme is now being offered at 11 public health centres in Bangkok and is expected to cover 68 centres in 50 districts by the end of this year, according to local health officials.

Mr Wongwat said the government has even assigned the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security to design plans to set up special schools for senior people.

But the Active Aging programme is unique because so many of its programmes are lecture-based, he said.

"Our course has what we call an 'impact evaluation'," he said.

"We designed the course and determined the goals based on what we want those who sign up to learn and accomplish," he said, adding that all who complete it get a certificate listing their newly obtained skills.

LCDR Boonsong Sriprapat, a former naval officer, has been attending the programme and recommends it for any retiree since it arms them with valuable new tools, knowledge and the benefit of physical health classes.

"I've always wanted to keep busy to stave off the boredom," said the 66-year-old self-described extrovert.

"I also want to help people as much as I can, even though I've retired."

Niramol Pitanilaphalin, 62, was convinced to attend by her family because they didn't want her to feel lonely at home while everyone else was at work.

The former teacher said she has enjoyed the programme because it has broadened her knowledge about healthy dieting. She was recently voted "class president" by her peers at the Active Ageing programme.

"I didn't realise the power of food to help fight depression and boost your happiness until I joined the class," said Ms Niramol, who mentioned Dao De Xin Xi as another highlight.

At one class witnessed recently by the Bangkok Post, a group of 40 men and women followed their instructor step by step as he went through some of the basic routines. The exercises are said to help the body function normally and can improve blood circulation.

"We don't expect all of our members to move in sync straight away," said 66-year-old instructor Noppasit Sasiphanthawong.

"Many have physical limitations. Our main goal is just to get them to engage and have fun."

Ms Niramol said it's better than other classes that are purely instructor-oriented.

"Those tend to make people feel a bit bored," she said. "But this class is different. The instructor is relaxed and friendly. He makes the class interactive and interesting. He knows how to get people to break the ice."

She urged more senior people to attend the course.

"We have to stay physically active so we can perform our daily tasks, maintain our sense of independence and feel like we're still in control of our lives," she said.

Others appreciate the social nature of the classes as they feel increasingly cut off from society, which negatively impacts their emotional well-being.

This can even extend to new travel and group-learning opportunities at other venues.

Some members of the course at Public Health Centre No.7 were taken to the Chao Phya Abhaibhubejhr Hospital Foundation recently to learn about herbal remedies.


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