LIVING & DYING ALONE

 

            Her struggle just to buy a loaf of bread

            - Has $50 a month for food

            - Lives in one-room flat

            - Over 6,000 folks like her in S'pore.

 

            How do they live? IRENE KEW reports

 

            May 11, 2002

 

            TWO years ago, she had a bad fall in the toilet.

 

            Too weak to get on her feet, she dragged herself out of the toilet,

            through the kitchen and into the living room.

 

            At the front door of her one-room flat, she cried for help.

            Thankfully,

            her neighbour heard her cries.

 

            Madam Wong Yin Keng, 91, lives alone in a cramped but neatly-kept,

            one-room flat at Stirling Road.

 

            Her husband died more than 30 years ago, she said.

 

            She has a daughter and two grandchildren who visit her once a month

            or

            less.

 

            But ask her if she's worried that she might die alone in the flat

            one day,

            and she brushes you off, saying: "It won't happen to me. If I'm

            going to

            die, I'll know, I'll call someone."

 

            She's not bothered that her next-door neighbour has moved out.

 

            Her new neighbour is a mentally-ill elderly woman. Some of the units

            on

            her floor are also empty.

 

            Even when she's down with a cold or a cough, she doesn't tell

anyone.

 

            "Don't trouble other people," explained Madam Wong, who suffers from

            high

            blood pressure and diabetes.

 

            It's only when she gets dizzy spells that she calls another

            neighbour, who

            is in her forties, for help.

 

            This neighbour, who declined to be named, said: "Last year, she

            called me,

            saying she was feeling giddy. I was so worried I called the

            ambulance. My

            family tries to check on her once a week."

 

            Madam Wong's granddaughter pops by once every month, to give her

some

            vegetables and money.

 

            But Madam Wong, who is hard of hearing, cannot remember her phone

            number.

 

            The rest of the days, the feisty old lady relies on herself to get

            groceries.

 

            Never mind that her legs are weak and she has difficulty walking.

 

            Or that she gets breathless trudging down one flight of stairs to

            get to

            the sixth-storey lift.

 

            In fact, Madam Wong was on her way to buy a loaf of bread when The

            New

            Paper spotted her last Tuesday.

 

            Struggling to cross the road with her walking aid, the old lady was

a

            sorry sight. Oblivious to the cars on the road, she made her way to

            the

            shop across her block at a snail's pace.

 

            A three-minute walk for a younger person, for Madam Wong, the

journey

            takes a tedious 15 minutes.

 

            The bread will last me for a week, she said.

 

            "If I don't cook, I'll just eat bread, with butter or kaya.

            Sometimes I

            will ask my neighbour to help me buy pork and fish. I can eat that

            for

            more than 10 days."

 

            Madam Wong, who is on public assistance, gets by with $230 a month,

            of

            which $18.50 goes to rent and $50 to food.

 

            Her days are lonely but Madam Wong says she is used to it. Her

            21-inch TV

            and four walls are her only companions.

 

            "It's been like this for more than 10 years. I wake up at 8am, do a

            bit of

            exercise, then I turn on the TV. I like watching English movies even

            though I don't understand English," she said, breaking into a

            toothless

            grin.

 

            Madam Wong may be lonely but she isn't alone.

 

            Other elderly folk The New Paper visited in her block and in Toa

            Payoh

            shared similar sad stories.

 

 

            HELLO, WANT TO COME IN?

 

            Staring from their gates, they were eager to have our reporter, a

            total

            stranger, in their homes.

 

            The loneliness stings but they are resigned to it.

 

            They call it their "fate".

 

            An 85-year-old woman, who declined to be named for fear her

daughters

            might scold her, confided: "We must be understanding. Our children

            and

            grandchildren also have work to do."

 

            Her next-door neighbour, Madam Sin Lye Kim, 83, keeps herself busy

            with

            household chores.

 

            "If I'm bored, I clean the house. Then I'll be tired and sleep. If

            not,

            I'll watch TV."

 

            Most of the time, she doesn't lie on her bed, for fear of dirtying

            the

            sheets.

 

            "I have no strength to change the sheets," she said, showing the

            small

            table she curls up on.

 

            Her children are all in China and her brother, who is in Spain,

            comes back

            only once in a few years.

 

            When she's at home, she keeps her door open - in case something

            happens.

 

            The sweet lady also tells her neighbour where she is headed when she

            goes

            out.

 

            "We check on each other. If I don't see her coming out for a day or

            two,

            I'll knock on her door to see if she is all right," she said.

 

            The elderly who live alone know there are lifelines around, senior

            activity centres that can help. But, for most, help seems beyond

            their

            reach.

 

            Madam Wong is aware there's a senior activity centre at May Ling

            Street,

            just 10 minutes from her flat.

 

            When asked why she doesn't spend her afternoons there, she said

            simply:

            "When I walk, my left knee hurts. How to go there?"

 

            Old folks village a good idea?

 

            THE Studio Apartment scheme launched by the Housing Board in 1998

            allows

            old people to own flats with safety features like an alarm system

and

            handrails in the bathrooms.

 

            For the elderly poor who can't afford these flats, blocks of

one-room

            flats with many old people living in them have been refurbished with

            elderly-friendly features since 1993.

 

            Senior Activity Centres (SAC) also sit under these blocks to provide

            support.

 

            Now, there are about 12 SACs islandwide and voluntary welfare

            organisations run about 30 different meal services.

 

            But there are problems.

 

            The Lion Befrienders, for example, now take care of 3,200 elderly

            poor but

            have only 1,200 volunteers, said Mr Joseph Cheong, executive

            director of

            the Lions Befriender Service Association.

 

            And old people living alone face problems even if they live in flats

            with

            safety features.

 

            Said Mrs Helen Ko, CEO of St Luke's Eldercare day-care centres and

            consultant with Singapore Action Group for Elders (Sage): "You can

            have an

            alarm system. But if the elderly collapses, nobody will know because

            she

            will not get the opportunity to pull the alarm in the first place."

 

            In 1992, the papers reported 12 cases of old people found dead in

            their

            flats for days after their deaths.

 

            Another 14 old people died the same way in 1993.

 

            Latest figures are not available.

 

            AN ELDERLY VILLAGE?

 

            Since the elderly living alone face such dangers, why not bring them

            together?

 

            Let them live together in one estate, like in a retirement village.

 

            That way, elderly services can be concentrated and resources

            maximised.

            Old folks can also look after one another.

 

            But you risk marginalising them, said Mrs Ko.

 

            "We have to influence our young children in terms of relating with

            elderly

            people.

 

            "All the more reason we shouldn't move them to another area... it's

            like

            you don't see anything, hear anything."

 

            It will also be depressing for the old to be put together.

 

            Said Mrs Ko: "Some elderly people do not like that because they say,

            'Every day I just wait to find out who is next to die. When will it

            be my

            turn?' "

 

            There should be a good mix of households with varying age groups in

a

            block, said Mr Cheong.

 

            "The question is, 'How do I ensure the young make a point to check

            the

            old?' "

 

            This is where third parties can come in, like the Residents'

            Committees.