Inclusivity: Empowering the Elderly Poor

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Let’s face it. Growing old is hard.

Rising poverty rates. Debilitating medical conditions. Isolation. Loneliness. Despite rapid technological advancements in the past few decades, today’s seniors continue to face much of the same problems as their peers 20, 30 years ago. The average Singaporean now has a life expectancy of 84.79 years, a huge increase from 76.1 years in 1990. This may be cause for celebration, if not overshadowed by the fact that by 2030, it is estimated that only two working adults aged 20 to 64 will be able to support one senior aged 65 plus.

What this means, essentially, is that as more and more seniors account for Singapore’s population, less and less support will be available to help them to overcome the multifarious problems associated with growing old. But meeting the needs of this disadvantaged group is not as straightforward an affair as it seems. Seniors are a diverse group, and their needs are many and varying. To address these needs, we must first understand them. 

Retirement is not cheap. For some, it is not free of responsibilities either. A recent study revealed that for seniors aged 65 and above, at least S$1,379 each month is deemed necessary to meet basic needs, and this is excluding medical costs such as treatment for chronic conditions and major illnesses. Some seniors in their 50s or 60s may have to remain in the workforce to support teenage children, or infirmed elderly parents or relatives. Others also have grandchildren left in their care in the absence of parents working long hours. These responsibilities, when overbearing, could lead to pressure and mental stress.

Around us, it is not uncommon to see the elderly working as cleaners in hawker centres, or waitresses at restaurants. Some may have chosen to do so out of free will, but what of those who did not? These are physically taxing jobs that are often accompanied by long working hours. Yet despite this, age-associated sensory decrements such as hearing impairments, as well as changes in posture and balance which limits their mobility are still common amongst the elderly.

These excessive exertions could inflict a heavy toll on both their physical and mental health. After all, these are seniors who have probably worked for a good half of their lives. At a time when health is paramount, many of the elderly poor are forced by circumstances or financial predicaments to remain in the arduous workforce.

What is even more alarming is that for many years, suicide rates among the elderly have been the highest across all age groups. Besides physical illnesses, many also suffer from psychological disorders such as dementia or depression. These are exacerbated when they or their families are facing financial difficulties, or suffering from debilitating illnesses.

Generally, seniors have a smaller social circle when compared to their younger peers. In Singapore, where, according to statistics, the gruelling work culture of 45.6 hours per week prevails in many households, many of the elderly are hard-pressed to find time to spend with their family. Some live in isolation and seclusion and are thus cut off from social support and early intervention. 

Take, for example, 85-year-old Ng Teok Boon who sells ice cream for a living. Every day, Mr Ng pushes his bulky ice cream cart to and fro Sim Lim Tower, where he sells the same beloved local treat he has been selling for more than 10 years. For all his hard work, Mr Ng earns a meagre S$600 – S$700 per month, in addition to the quarterly aid of S$750 he receives from the government’s Silver Support Scheme. Mr Ng faces difficulty paying the rent, utilities and conservancy bills of his one-room flat and is afflicted with arthritis. Despite all this, when asked if he would still work after receiving more financial assistance from the government, his answer was a resounding “Yes.”

Me Ng’s story does not simply illustrate the financial, medical and social needs of the elderly poor in Singapore, but also highlights the underlying, less apparent need of this disadvantaged group, namely, the need for empowerment. You see, aiding the elderly poor is not just a matter of making financial assistance and medical support schemes more accessible, though these are of vital importance as well. Aiding the elderly poor is also a matter of empowering them with the ability to pursue their interests and desires in life.

There are those among the elderly who, like Mr Ng, prefer the satisfaction of working and earning an honest living as opposed to the quiet lives of retirement that is the norm for many others. Ultimately, what we have to do, as a society, is to empower the elderly with the support they need to be financially stable and physically fit enough to decide for themselves how to make the best of their so called ‘golden years’. 

How do we do this? The first is through social support. More needs to be done to ensure that seniors do not live in quiet isolation where they are vulnerable to the assault of mental and physical illnesses. Seniors need to feel that they are a part of our society. Aside from a support network of social workers and community volunteers, increasing digital literacy among the elderly can also be a means of filling the chasm that separates them from the rest of society.

The world today operates on entirely new paradigms of mass media and virtual collaboration that might seem daunting to many who are not native to this digital world. More needs to be done to help seniors make sense of this brave new world so that they too can be part of the change.

Fortunately, work is already underway. Schools and community centres have long been organising digital literacy programmes as a means to help the elderly become more technologically savvy while providing students and community volunteers with valuable learning opportunities. These are good starts, but the isolated and often neglected elderly poor need to be involved in this journey as well.

Another way of empowering the elderly in our society is to change the stereotypes and misperceptions that have been long ingrained in our society. Many equate old age with idleness but nothing is further from the truth. 84-year-old Masako Wakamiya is one of the world’s oldest iPhone app developers. What seniors and society as a whole need to realize is that even in old age, seniors still can contribute. In work, senior workers are valuable assets, whose guidance and facilitation is integral to the growth of a company’s younger staff. In life, seniors should be valued for their intrinsic worth as role models, whose irreplaceable experiences and insightful perspectives remain pertinent even in today’s evolving world.

Economists, sociologists and historians all make use of past trends to forecast the future. Scientists build on the discoveries of their predecessors. Therefore, the stereotype that the elderly have little more to contribute should be debunked. Especially in a country that relies so much on human resources like Singapore, harnessing seniors’ experiences and insights could give us an edge in economy and innovation.

Retiring from a job is not retiring from the myriad experiences that make life vibrant. A new hobby, new people to talk to, new places to go. All these serve to enliven the days of our retired seniors. It is therefore heartening to see that these needs are actively catered to in communities where local parks are built and workshops for a plethora of activities ranging from pottery to tai chi to terrarium making are commonly held. The platitude ‘age is just a number’ is perhaps too often quoted but conventional wisdom does prove true sometimes. If life is a five-course meal, surely dessert is as much part of the experience as the main course?

Ultimately, empowerment and mindset changes start from the individual. Do not be afraid to expose the seniors in your life to new experiences. Do not dismiss their opinions lightly. Whether it be meeting the needs of our seniors through policies or volunteering, or changing our own mindsets, all of us can play a part in bettering the lives of the elderly in Singapore.

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