Hoang Thi Thu Ngan, deputy general director of Hanoi’s Dien Hong Retirement Home, is concerned about the low return on investment.
Despite charging the market price of VND7.5 million ($312) per month, she says nearly a quarter of her rooms are never occupied.
Since its opening eight years ago, the center has only taken in around 300 seniors.
“Not only my center, but many others too have had very few inmates ever since they opened.”
Despite Vietnam’s rapidly aging population, Dien Hong and many other retirement homes are struggling since many families still cannot afford them and people are still keen to care for their elderly parents rather than sending them to care facilities.
According to a survey on population change and family planning done by the General Statistics Office last year, there were 12.58 million people aged above 60 in the country, 4.3 million of them living alone or with grandchildren and needing support.
Mai Xuan Phuong, a senior official at the Ministry of Health’s population and family planning department, told VnExpress earlier this month that the number of sexagenarians would reach 18 million by 2030, accounting for 17.5% of the population.
The United Nations Population Fund has said Vietnam would enter the aging population stage in 2040.
This threatens to place a significant strain on elderly long-term care services and systems in the coming years.
Unlike in the past when conservative beliefs held sway, Ngan says Vietnamese are becoming more accepting of living in retirement homes.
She used to see children come and pick their parents up after just a few days at the center since they had been bad mouthed by neighbors and relatives for being unfilial.
“However social stereotypes about being unfilial for sending elderly parents to homes are gradually disappearing.”
While there is strong demand for senior care services, she says many seniors cannot afford long-term care and do not want to financially burden their children.
She points out that many people typically get pensions of VND4-5 million, with some getting VND6 million, not enough to afford places like hers.
Bach Tuyet, 71, says: “Both of my children have young kids. With their meager monthly income of VND6-7 million, they already struggle to support their children and I don’t want to become a burden for them.”
Hanoian Tran Minh Quan believes assisted living facilities are only for wealthy families who can afford them.
“I really want to put my 68-year-old father in a retirement home, but it is a dream considering my financial situation.”
Data from the Population and Family Planning shows that only around 27 percent of seniors have pensions or other steady sources of income, while the remaining 73 percent have to continue working or depend on their children.
As of December 2020, Vietnam had around 80 private retirement homes, 20 in Hanoi and 10 in HCMC.
Only 32 out of the country’s 63 provinces and cities had specialized facilities for seniors, with most only providing basic care.
One of the major reasons for this is a shortage of investors and human resources.
Nguyen Tuan Ngoc, director of Bach Nien Thien Duc, which has five facilities around the country currently caring for over 500 seniors, says most people still do not consider caregiving a profession and there is a lack of professional training in this field in Vietnam.
“Because the work is tiring and the pay is low, those studying healthcare choose to work for private clinics and hospitals.
“Well-trained people prefer to work abroad, where they can earn significantly more.”
Though he says he does not have actual numbers, he is certain that the number of people quitting is higher than those applying.
He says working in a nursing home is stressful and pleasing elderly people is tough since they often have erratic temperaments due to their age. Besides, 70% of seniors require extensive care, a laborious and time-consuming task, he says.
He has grown accustomed to people starting work in the morning and quitting the same day while others last up to three months, but it always end the same way, he says.
Though the retirement home model is well established, it has yet to become widespread because operating costs are very high while profits are small, he adds.
Over the course of many years, the Ministry of Health has issued a number of policies aimed at developing human resources for senior care centers, but to no avail and shortages remain chronic.
Dr Than Ha Ngoc The, head of the geriatric care department at the University Medical Center HCMC, says the healthcare system has not kept pace with the shift in demographics.
There are few hospitals in HCMC with geriatric departments, and there is no dedicated geriatric facility, while Hanoi has one public geriatric hospital, she points out.
She too says many people want to keep parents by their side instead of sending them to homes.
Tran Huu Tri, 80, says his youngest son comes to his house every weekend to perform physical therapy on his wife, who has Parkinson’s disease.
Tri and his wife, who have three grown children with their own families, have many ailments, but the children are unwilling to let them hire caregivers especially if they are not professionally trained.
“My son has to spend weekends at home to care for his mother.”
Hiring physiotherapists at VND300,000 an hour to come home and treat his wife is too expensive, he says.
“I also have heart disease and many other illnesses. But I manage to hold up thanks to my children’s support.
“I will be a happy man even if I die today since all my children are grown up. I don’t want to become a burden for them.”
My Linh of HCMC says though there is nothing to complain about the services provided by private retirement homes, she does not want to move her parents there.
“If a nursing home offers semi-boarding, I might consider it.”
She wishes senior homes have different kinds of programs for people like her to choose from.
“They should offer short-term rehabilitation programs for people recovering from serious illnesses. I will definitely admit my parents because I am afraid of not being able to care for them myself when I am busy and not having enough medical knowledge.”
After running four retirement homes for eight years, Thu Ngan says it is not as profitable as other businesses.
Many investors contact Dien Hong seeking to collaborate with it to open homes, but immediately reconsider the plan when they learn about the financial difficulties, she says.
More time and long-term management plans are required to improve the quality of retirement homes and make them popular.
“I hope that in the coming years Vietnam gets some kind of industry association to set minimum service and quality standards for retirement homes.”
If standards are imposed for facility and service quality, and homes are then regularly appraised by the association, the public will have more trust in them and more people will use them, she adds.
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