That afternoon was our turn to visit the old folks staying in rented one-room flats in a certain block at Lorong One of Toa Payoh. I did not know what to expect. We were supposed to just go and visit, chitchat with them, perhaps perform a little song and dance.
They're not disabled or sickly, mind you. These are merely able-bodied elderlies who are either unmarried or are not staying with their children, hence they are assigned these rental flats to dwell in.
It is different from the the estate I visited many years back at Chin Swee area, where the units come with special assistance such as emergency cords and wheelchair ramps.
These are merely small, dim units with very dark corridors as the doors face each other, blocking all traces of sunlight. Yes, it felt rather stifling, and there was a pang of odor that seemed to reside within the very walls of this building.
It evoked a kind of sadness in us, imagining our own parents having to stay here one day; or maybe even ourselves, many years down the road.
Insight into their Lifestyles
My capacity there was to distribute some supplies and as interviewer / chatter more than voluntary work, actually.
So I shall skip the details of the performance and process of giving that were handled by the others whom I came together with.
What's a typical day for these senior citizens who are residents of this block, and what are their thoughts?
Okay, some of them work - cleaners, metal cans collectors etc. But most of them here do not work. In the mornings, they either go marketing or go downstairs to join the others in tai chi practice or simply sitting around the benches chattering with each other. Most of them reside alone, therefore they are very lonely and cherish the company of fellow residents scattered all over the block.
A Madam Tan* states her views as such,"Look at it this way, we are useless, old already, cannot do much. Children all busy, so we turn to each other for company and comfort because we understand each other, look out for one another."
At noon, voluntary workers distribute free lunch boxes to these elderly, who happily devour the food with gratitude. Besides free lunches, the voluntary workers also give out packets of rice, sugar, salt etc to the elderly so that they can prepare their own dinners or suppers.
After lunch, the residents gather at the Senior Citizens Activity Centre where they learn and work on arts and crafts together. They are being kept occupied until evening time, when eventually they would either return to their own units to prepare dinner or are being fetched by their children to dine out.
Sometimes, there are organized day trips for temples visitations or church attendances, and tourist attractions. The elderly would partake in these activities for the opportunities to have some fun and get away from the environment they're confined in.
"It is an eye-opener for us, we don't know Singapore has such lovely places (lor)," quips a Mr. Foo*. "Anyway it's free (mah), so why not just go and take a look? Being cooped up indoors all the time, we tend to feel very frustrated and down."
Yes, indeed, it is a great initiative to bring these senior citizens out for some fresh air and simple pleasures of life - their faces would light up with something to look forward to, and their minds would be filled with lovelier memories rather than the sad reminder that they have no children / no kin / do not stay with their families.
Tales and Thoughts
Mdm Tan*, whose daughter got married and moved overseas, was staying with her son for a while. However, the elderly couple could not get along with the demanding daughter-in-law, hence they rented a unit out here to live by themselves. "I should not have sold my house in central house back then. We thought that since we would be living with our son, it was the ideal thing to do," she confided regrettably. "Now they don't want us two old folks, so we're on our own. Thankfully we still have proceeds from the sale of our four-room flat in Braddell."
Her neighbor, a rather young-looking, unmarried Ms Woon*, is currently in her 60s. She is unmarried, and does not wish to burden her siblings with her lodgings, hence she rented a unit here to live by herself. "Initially, it was a rather intimidating thought," she shares in dialect. "This place is dark and full of old people. I was a little scared when I first moved here," she shared in a mock-confidential whisper. "We hear about deaths all the time, so even upon moving in, we wonder who used to stay here, who passed away in the same unit before, and would we be seeing 'things', you know what I mean?"
Yes, Ms Woon*, we totally get what you mean. It is not easy definitely, to move into a place whereby deaths are often near and inevitable, since the block is full of very old folks. It is easier to not think about the past occupants and not to fear being haunted by those who passed on peacefully in the apartments. The rest of the occupants advised that all new tenants be gratified to simply have a roof over their heads and at least one meal a day being taken care of.
"Not bad already (lah)," Mr Foo* gushes. "We take care of one another here (lor), since our children don't do it. What to do? Anger and heartbreak also won't solve the problem sometimes. Look at Old Lee* over there - had filial son but son died in motorcycle accident, so he also ended up here." He gestures to an elderly gentleman with a shock of white hair sitting a few benches away watching pigeons feeding on the grounds.
The chatty Mr Foo* continues with a toothless grin,"We learn to view things very openly now, ('kan de kai' in Mandarin), we don't know how much longer we live or our neighbors will live, so we just make full use of each day (lor). Just last week, we found one of the old men dead in his apartment (mah). We didnt see him for three days downstairs already, so we thought that maybe he went to stay with his children or they brought him overseas. However, we still decided to check it out."
So they alerted the committee who had keys to each unit, and upon opening the door, they were shocked, and saddened to find their friendly neighbor dead in his own flat. In fact, he had been dead for about three days.
"We should've checked it out sooner," Mr Foo* conceded with a sigh, shaking his head in despair. "He was so friendly, always smiling. We will miss him (lor)."
When asked if they took the news of death around here hard, Mr Foo* and Madam Tan* both shook their heads in unison.
"At first, yes, but once you get used to it, well, you realize it becomes rather common around here..." Madam Tan trails off, looking away into the distance as if lost in deeper thoughts of her own.
Time flies, and it has come to the end of a meaningful day.
Have we learned much from these people here? Yes.
(i) We should cherish each day of our lives as if it were our own
(ii) Learn to take things in stride and not dwell too much on unpleasantries
(iii) The value of being independent
(iv) To learn to appreciate the simple beauty of life itself - sometimes the most beauteous things in life are simple creations by nature, not lavish items only attainable by money
In a way, it is a rather moving experience, to touch base with these senior citizens, and learn of their stories. But in another way, we are glad that at least there are warm-hearted volunteers who are on the constant lookout for the welfare of these people physically, mentally and emotionally. Kudos to them!
Who knows, I might devote some time to helping out too...
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