In Singapore, it is common to hear phrases such as “ageing population”, “eldercare” or even “narrowing tax base”, but what do these actually mean to you and me? Most of us are aware that Singapore is facing an ageing population, where the proportion of elderly people is increasing. In fact, the statistics can be quite worrying.
Are our elderly getting the care they need and deserve?
A System of Integrated Care
The Singapore government’s attention to detail spans all demographics, and its astute use of funds (contributed by taxpayers in the 20-64 age group) has ensured that the elderly are currently well taken care of.
In order to serve the rapidly ageing population better, the Government established the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC), as part of the Ministry of Health. AIC aims to benefit the elderly (and their primary caregivers) through integrating health and social care, such that the elderly are taken care of in a holistic manner in which their physical and psychological well-being have equal importance.
In a 2013 interview with the Straits Times, Chief Executive Dr Jason Cheah highlighted that AIC is much more than just allocating resources for traditional forms of elderly care. It wants to create a person-centred care system whereby the recipient is able to age in place and within the community. The care that they receive are also based on their needs and preferences. This is a noble undertaking, and demonstrates the commitment AIC has towards the elderly in Singapore.
Fast-forward three years, and the Senior Minister of State for Health Dr Amy Khor stated that the AIC “received home care referrals for about 8,500 seniors and day care referrals for about 7,800 seniors in 2015” and “does not turn down any referrals”, according to a Channel NewsAsia report published on April 5 this year. The same report stated that the “Ministry of Health is on track to meet its target of 10,000 home care places and 6,200 day care places by 2020”.
This notwithstanding, continued outreach efforts and awareness on how to identify available eldercare services are vital if the elderly are to receive much-needed care.
While on the topic of help for caregivers, Dr Cheah pointed out that caregiver burnout can become a real issue for some. As mentioned earlier, there are fewer people to support the elderly, and this responsibility could fall to a single person in a family. Sometimes, this person even has to care for more than one elderly. Even if they believe they can cope by themselves, they have to recognise when they need a break.
Thus, a pilot programme known as the Nursing Home Respite Care project was rolled out in May 2013, where caregivers are able to admit their loved ones in nursing homes for a short stay when they need a break. I believe that the well-rounded support given by agencies like AIC will go a long way in ensuring our elderly receive the care they need.
The Old and Lonely
So far, we have talked about caregivers and their elderly care recipients living as families. There is another demographic of elderly who live alone, often in elderly communities, and there is a rise in their numbers in Singapore.
I once asked a colleague from Malaysia, “Do you notice a lot of old folks in your area?” She replied in the affirmative. My then-colleague was renting a flat in the MacPherson area, where one in three residents is aged 50 and above and about 1,400 of them live alone. This represents about eight percent of Singapore’s silver population. This significant proportion of elderly is often overlooked by the rest of society, but it is heartening to note that they are not forgotten.
Currently, there are 24 Social Service Offices across Singapore, which needy residents can approach for help. According to a Straits Times article dated Jan 21, 2016, “[in] the next five years, the destitute elderly will get more help to overcome their difficulties. Policies and laws, such as the Mental Capacity Act, will be reviewed to better protect elderly folk who suffer abuse or neglect”.
I, too, have an elderly relative who lives alone. She rents a small, two-room flat from the Government under the Public Rental Scheme. As an elderly person without any income, she relies on monthly government assistance to get by.
But rather than just get by, she has chosen to age actively and happily, making small talk with the vendors when she visits the wet market nearby. Even cleaning her flat is something that she cheers about. She chooses to live happily, as she says that most people her age are not even able to walk anymore. She is a grateful recipient of care in Singapore.
But there are also senior citizens in Singapore with financial difficulties, who do not seek government assistance.
This group of elderly still work to earn their own keep, often as collectors of recyclables and tissue paper peddlers.
Last year, a group of students from Youth Corps Singapore undertook a project to interact with and learn more about elderly cardboard collectors in the Jalan Besar area. The aim of the project was to understand the needs of the elderly cardboard collectors so as to better extend help to them.
From interviews and surveys conducted by the group, many of the elderly responded that they collect cardboard for reasons other than it being their source of income. Most claim that they prefer to earn some extra “coffee” money, or treat collecting cardboard as a form of exercise and activity rather than being cooped up at home all day.
That said, the group leader of the project, Koh Cheng Jun, wrote in a public Facebook post dated July 12, 2015: “Most cardboard collectors do it for the money (no doubts about it).”
There are more and more senior citizens in Singapore, and as the cost of living rises, they would sometimes be forced into working such jobs to supplement their income. For example, the market rate for selling used cardboard is S$0.10 per kilogram. In order to buy a plate of chicken rice, that means 25kg of cardboard has to be collected.
The load of cardboard, and the time and effort it takes to collect them, may be too much for some of our senior citizens to bear. No matter the reason, help is out there, and they urgently need to be educated about their options.
Equal Opportunities to Age Happily
Despite the difficulties faced by some senior citizens in Singapore, it is safe to say that most appear to be well taken care of. As long as they are all aware of the help that is available, they would surely be able to age in peace. One thing to note for the elderly and their caregivers alike, is that having a positive mentality can do wonders in seemingly difficult times.
Here’s to ageing happily!