Visiting old friends in a Myanmar retirement home

8 Mar 2019

Superficially, Myanmar doesn’t have an ageing demographic problem. Not the way we see, say, in Europe, where the percentage of over-60s in the population is pushing 30%, or in Japan, where they represent a third of the population. In Myanmar the over-60s run around 9%.

Another bit of seemingly good statistical news is that, thanks to larger families and the prevalence of multi-generational households as a cultural norm, the vast majority of older people in Myanmar have family, and a family home, to fall back on in the later years.

For those ageing Burmese who lack the family fall-back, though, old age is a burden that’s all too real. Because when you factor in general levels of poverty, the absence of widely available retirement pensions, and the still-nascent social protection infrastructure for Myanmar seniors, life can be pretty hard and depressing. Which is why I find visiting one of Myanmar’s old people’s homes such an uplifting experience.

Of course, this is a photo tour of Myanmar and we’re there to make photographs. That’s nearly always top of a Travelshooters agenda. But as we travel and shoot, getting some understanding of different social groups and life pathways informs the mind and enriches the shooting. Moreover, as the old folks’ homes in Myanmar are often funded entirely by donations from devout Buddhists and visitors, our presence gives us an opportunity to make a contribution as a small thank-you to all the amazing people who so willingly give us time for chatting and taking pictures.

As we do the introductions, ask after their health, chat about where we’re from and what they do with their time, it’s instantly apparent that the Buddhist religion is a huge contributor to the comforts, rhythms and hopes of their old age. We’re also intrigued to see the differences between similarly-aged seniors: some seem much more lively, interactive, sprightly, full of sass and mischief than others.

She is one of those ladies who is more beautiful at sixty than she could possibly have been at twenty.

One lady in particular (featured in the photo-set above) put me instantly in mind of writer Mary Ann Shaffer’s insight: “She is one of those ladies who is more beautiful at sixty than she could possibly have been at twenty.”

Here’s to ageing gracefully. Or disgracefully — if that pleases you. Meanwhile, we should be shooting together.

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