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I was watching a Tamil documentary about an elderly Indian man who arrived in the 1950s in Singapore from Southern India. He worked hard and contributed much to Singapore as a labourer.
However he did not marry, had no kids nor any other family members in Singapore. When he grew old, he ended up in an old folks’ home as he had nobody to care for him.
The documentary traces his roots, family and relations in India and tries to connect him to them. However even though he is in his last years, he refuses to go back to India to visit them even for a short while. He wants to remain in Singapore even though he has nobody here. His relatives in India had either seen him more than 50 years ago when he left India or never at all as many were born after he left. They were informed he has no money whatsoever and his lonely condition in the old folks home. They expressed regret and were begging that he return.
One relative explained that they will feel contented to see him die in their company instead of alone. She explained she will only be contented if she and her relatives are allowed to carry out his final rites after death instead of strangers doing so. When it was put forth to another relative that the old man was apprehensive about being neglected should he relocate to India, the relative replied she will be contented if he should just visit them for a week.
The documentary clearly showed the difference between how a traditional society and a modern society treats its elderly. In Singapore, despite its geographical location in Asia, having lost most of its Asian traditions, values, norms, standards and worldviews in the course of development only to be replaced with pragmatism, materialism, individualism and neo-liberal ideas, the elderly is perceived far differently than in a traditional Asian society.
I remember whenever I visited India, there were poor elderly begging on the streets. However the majority of the elderly, be it those with immediate or extended family members or those with absolutely none, were taken care of by their immediate or extended family members or stranger families. There are old folks homes in India but they are not a common phenomenon and face severe objections from society.
Watching the documentary made me ask myself what the appropriate dwelling place is for the elderly in our society. An old folks home? Absolutely not. I remember being brought to old folks homes while I went to school in Singapore. These homes were places that neither my school mates nor me felt comfortable in. It was slightly less depressing than a prison. Hard concrete, long hall ways, gates… I remember the first meeting at the entrances will be long silent stares between us students and the residents. Then we will give the old folks gifts and do performances. At the end of the sessions, we felt more distant than when we first stepped in.
Contrasting to this I recall going into the houses in India or walking past them and seeing elderly folks. Whenever I enquire if this guy or that guy is a relative, sometimes or many a times I get replies that he is not an actual member of that household itself. Instead the family adopted him to care and look after him. But just because they belong to those households, the distance disappears between them and me and I had to treat them as I treated my relatives.
I have noticed such kindness amongst some relatives who migrated here to Singapore. An aunt of mine who came here about 40 years ago, adopted an eight year old kid, who was the son of her neighborhood provision shop owner, when the provision shop owner suddenly passed away due to heart attack. My aunt herself then had four teenage kids. Yet I remember her telling us that she could not let the boy go back to India as his mother is mentally unsound and that she was worried that he will not have a good upbringing. She was also unsure which relatives in India of the boy will adopt him. My aunt cared for him for over 20 years and got him married a few years ago. That boy will not have made it better had he ended up in an orphanage in Singapore. Over time as he grew up I had to treat him like my own cousin. All relatives included him as a relative.
As mentioned earlier, that is the same way elderly folks when adopted by families back in India end up being. On the contrary when they are chucked into old folks homes they remain as mere digits.
In Singapore it may be not practical for all the elderly to be taken out of old folks centres and be adopted into our homes given our limited space. Nevertheless these elderly folks can still be taken out from the depressing old folks homes and be made our neighbours at least. HDB can allocate apartments within HDB blocks solely for such elderly. Resident centres (RCs), besides patronizing MPs and hosting activities half of which benefits less than half the population, can instead help coordinate to integrate such elderly within the neighbourhood.
Singapore’s population is fast aging. In less than 15 years a significant proportion of the population will be elderly. We need to think of solutions much more humane, friendlier and benevolent than chucking them in old folks homes.
The author wishes to remain anonymous for personal reasons.