23 May 2024

The millions of Thais heading back to their home provinces to visit elderly parents over Songkran underlines the harsh reality that many of these seniors spend most of the year all alone.

Research by Mahidol University’s Institute for Population and Social Research shows the percentage of elderly couples living alone rose from 16.9% in 2011 to 20.6% in 2017. And that figure is on course to climb to 23% by 2050.

This is on top of the percentage of single seniors living alone, which soared from 8.6% in 2011 to 10.8% in 2017 and is expected to jump to 15% in 2050.

The epidemic of old people living alone coincides with a downward trend in extended families, where three or four generations live together. Such living arrangements are no longer that common in Thailand.

Moreover, Thailand is officially an aged society – and on course to become “super-aged” in the next decade. Senior citizens accounted for 20.17% of its total population as of 2023, according to Statista.com.

The country must therefore prepare infrastructure, facilities and initiatives to support its graying population. However, public and private sector budget to fund these preparations is limited – meaning millions of seniors without young relatives or carers could be left to suffer alone in their final years.

One potentially game-changing solution to this brewing crisis is time-banking.

“We are experimenting with the time-banking concept to deal with the country’s growing elderly population,” said Asst Prof Dr Nate Hongkrailert, who works at Siam University’s Research Center for Community Development and heads the Time Bank in Bangkok’s Phasi Charoen district.

What is time banking?

Time banking is a way of exchanging skills and services that uses time rather than money as its currency. A person who offers their service for one hour to another person in the time-banking community earns one credit in their account.

Likewise, the person who receives the service must reciprocate by supplying an hour of their own service. Services can be anything from teaching a language to mending an air conditioner.

Every hour of time is generally valued the same, regardless of the service rendered.

Time banks have already been established in many countries across the world, including the United States, Switzerland, Britain, New Zealand, China, and Singapore.

Thailand began experimenting with time banking about five years ago. Currently, around 80 time banks are operating across the kingdom since the concept was introduced here in 2018.

Time-banking communities in Bangkok

Nate revealed that at least seven communities in Bangkok’s Phasi Charoen district operate time banks with support from the Thai Health Promotion Foundation and its network.

“As time banking is still a relatively new concept in Thailand, we need to promote awareness and understanding first,” he said.

Varavan Boonton runs the Poon Bampen Community Time Bank under the guidance of Nate. About 10% of the community’s nearly 800 residents have used the bank.

“Although not all locals have joined up as members, the concept has already caught on. I think this idea will work well in the end,” Varavan said.

She explained that while members were initially unsure what they could offer, the range of services they now provide is diverse. The long list includes driving, household chores, gardening, hairdressing, and feeding bedridden patients.

“About 40 of our 80 members are currently active. As they exchange services, they establish bonds of trust among each other. They have directly experienced what our time bank can offer,” she said.

Orn-anong Thongduan, the youngest board member of the Poon Bampen Community Time Bank, said she had been reluctant to seek help from neighbors in the past. But as a member of the time bank, she can claim what she is entitled to.

“I provide my services and in return, I can be served,” the 42-year-old said.

As someone who lives alone, her recent bout of recovering from surgery could have been difficult, she added. But thanks to the time bank, she received the support and assistance she needed to regain her strength.

“I had accumulated credits before the surgery. So, after I underwent the operation, I could use my credits,” she said.

Anyone who applies to be a member of the time bank must list three skills they can provide.  When another member requests a service relevant to their skills, the bank will contact them and arrange for the service to be delivered.

The Poon Bampen Community Time Bank was established in 2019. But Nate said it operated more like a volunteer foundation until services were systematized in 2022.

“Now, its time-banking services have also become more tangible,” he said.

Varavan said her time bank has also brought the community closer together. In the past, many locals were reserved and reluctant even to greet their neighbors. But after being invited to join the time bank and getting to know other locals, they connected and began doing activities together.

“I feel good when I see community ties get stronger,” she said.

Varavan also appreciates the time bank’s concept of treating all members as equals. No matter what services they provide, they get credits based on the time they serve.

“So, our members are really treated as equals,” she said proudly.

How sustainable are time banks?

While time banks have proved useful in many communities, not all have been successful. Some have had to shut down because they lacked members or an efficient system.

Addressing this concern, Nate said he was now preparing mechanisms to sustain time banks in Phasi Charoen before their eventual handover to another organization – possibly the local Bangkok Metropolitan Administration office.

“The district office is interested in taking over,” Nate said. “We hope the time banks we have developed will become models for other communities too.”

The sustainability of time banks depends greatly on the dedication of their community leaders and members, he added.

“It’s about helping one another in ‘the family’ by using the skills one has. The ultimate goal of a time bank is to sustain and strengthen society.”

Varavan said she never tires of inviting more people to join her time bank because she was convinced of its benefits and knew that the time-banking concept is still not widely known.

“We don’t expect to be able to persuade everyone to join. But at least we have sent out invitations and started familiarizing locals with the concept,” she said.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk