Deep in the heart of Klong Toey slum, a group of senior citizens are being put through their paces.…“Neung, sawng, saam, sii,, haa, hock, jet ….” Up front, a bubbly student nurse clutches a microphone and calls out instructions… “just a little bit higher, come on”. Across the room, wrinkled faces giggle and smile as they lift their legs in a series of simple exercises. “That’s it, you’ve got it, good work!”
Founded by the Duang Prateep Foundation, The Klong Toey Senior Citizens Club meets each Wednesday and is free for any member of the community over the age of 60 years. On average, around 100 people a week attend, where they are offered a free meal along with activities ranging from health checks, nutritional advice, light exercise, guest talks and prayer time.
“If they don’t get their prayer time they get very upset” Khun So, the Director of the Program tells me. “If we have a visitor and prayer time is cut short, they’re not happy. For them, it’s a chance to make merit and also relax but most of all it helps them to cope with what’s going on in the rest of their lives, which is usually a lot.”
Across the board, the members here have come from difficult and acutely underprivileged circumstances. Saddled with low education and in many cases broken families, life has been harsh, with low income jobs as either street food vendors, labourers or in factories being the norm.
I had a very tough life and a lot of pressure just to make ends meet. Even now I have to think before I buy something to eat, if I can afford it, do I need it, what else can I have instead?
“I had a very tough life and a lot of pressure just to make ends meet’, Janda, 83 confides, who worked for many years as a song tao (taxi truck) driver as well as serving in the Vietnam War. “Even now I have to think before I buy something to eat, if I can afford it, do I need it, what else can I have instead?”
In Thailand, the aged pension is a meagre 800 THB ($22 USD) per month which means, even with the support of family, many of the country’s elderly still need to supplement their income in whatever way they can, just to survive.
For Somboon, 84, it’s collecting plastic bottles twice a day and selling them to a local recycler, while Look Wha, 68, sells flavoured ice cups to children from outside her home. For Prapai, 83, it’s threading flowers to make Phuang Malai, the garlands used as offerings at Buddhist shrines while Cha-Lauy, 72 makes a batch of rice porridge each morning and sets up a stall outside a primary school.
For many, health is also a major concern. Only a few weeks ago, Bunma,77, suffered a stroke while at the Club. “So took me first to the clinic and later the hospital. She stopped everything to take care of me and waited with me for several hours. If it wasn’t for So, I would have died, I am sure of it” Bunma confides.
So brushes it off, but it’s clear both she and the Foundation provide huge support and a real sense of place for the elderly within the slum. Though some live with family, typically children and grandchildren, all under one roof, many members do talk of loneliness and how important the club is for getting them out and giving them the opportunity to meet with friends and socialise.
“I love coming here. It’s a place you can meet with friends and relax, we can talk about our problems and also just enjoy each other’s company”, says Payoon, 84, her eyes still sparkling despite obvious frailty.
With all the noise and the animated chatter, it’s difficult to consider that life’s passing also looms large for the people here.
It’s just a part of life, it’s not something we see as the end. In death you can be reborn and maybe your next life will be better and you’ll get another chance.
Today Somsi, 80, the Club’s officially elected ‘President’, is collecting donations for a recently deceased members funeral. Traditionally, when a Buddhist dies, their body must remain in a temple for 3 days at a cost of 4000-5000 THB ($110-$140 USD) per day, yet for most families in the slum this is a huge amount and more than most can afford.
“The money collected buys the family one night in the temple, which helps a lot, then they only have to pay for the other two. It’s a small thing but it makes a big difference and everyone knows that one day, other members will do the same for them and their families also.” Somsi says.
As well as collecting donations, Somsi also represents the Seniors Group at each and every funeral. It’s a role she’s happy to play, and like many Buddhists, one that she feels isn’t necessarily a time for sadness. “For Buddhists, death is part of the cycle, like birth. It’s just a part of life, it’s not something we see as the end. In death you can be reborn and maybe your next life will be better and you’ll get another chance.” she says.
With lunch finished and prayer time done, some members depart quickly to collect grandchildren from school or return to their work, while for others it’s a chance to discreetly seek out So to discuss any pressing personal issues.
“The social aspect is important’, So says “but we are also here to offer advice and help in any way we can. It could be to do with health, family, we even offer small loans, we try to do whatever we can to help them”.
For those left behind it’s a slow walk outside and into the chaos of the slum, their still lively chatter wafting up, just audible, above the noisy din of the streets.