Note: This is the second of a two-part series on volunteers at All Saints Home. Read part one here.
Three days later, the ABBS volunteers gather at All Saints Home in Yishun. One by one, the volunteers push the elderly residents in their wheelchairs to neatly parked rows facing a projection screen. Today, the volunteers will lead the residents in song and games, and they begin the session with a fun exercise. A video featuring a group of elders with exercise attire starts playing, and they move their arms while singing a catchy tune in Mandarin:
“有人靠车, 有人靠马, 我们要提到耶和华神的名…”
“Some trust in chariots, some trust in horses, but we have to trust in the name of Jesus..”
The volunteers stand in front and around them, imitating the video; their arms propelling forward as if they were wheels of a train. The residents follow readily and enjoyably. Now, this is an activity that a young person might feel embarrassed to do, but these elderly residents are devoid of any such shame; they are merely happy to be engaged with a level of excitement not usually found in their daily lives. The volunteers, too, are brimming with energy, focusing on bringing joy to the elderly residents.
“Alright, we are now going to sing ‘You are My Sunshine’,” Sherry announces in front, smiling and making eye contact with each of the rows of residents.
“We hope we are your sunshine when we come, too, because it gives us joy to see you all so happy!”
A volunteer starts playing the piano while the screen now displays the lyrics to the song. They continue singing a mix of classic songs in English which the residents are familiar with, then some Christian songs, before moving on to a range of old Mandarin and Malay songs. No doubt these are songs that the elderly residents know from their younger days, and many of them are comfortable enough to sing along, while some are even bold enough to grab the microphone to sing, karaoke-style. Even as the Chinese New Year songs in Mandarin are playing, many non-Chinese elders seem more than happy to join in. I spot an elderly Indian man singing along to one such song, albeit to the syllable “da”. Language is not a barrier here.
Today’s session celebrates Chinese New Year, and all activities and songs are chosen to fit that theme. At one point, volunteers stand in front, holding up clear folders displaying the numbers one to ten. Behind each number is an image relating to Chinese New Year, like a pair of oranges, or a bundle of red packets. The objective is to pick two numbers, and for them both to contain the same picture. If the residents choose correctly and get two matching images, they are given a biscuit as a reward. It’s a simple game that offers a chance for the residents to exercise their memory skills, but more importantly, have fun.
Some residents are better at this game than others. A few have pretty good memories, and when asked they choose two winning numbers they recall from the previous week when the same game was played. Sherry forgets to shuffle the pictures on occasion, much to the benefit of those with good memories. Then there are the ones who sit in front and have had a chance to peek a little behind the numbers. They smirk confidently as they choose two numbers without hesitation and await the inevitable biscuit prize. They are the ones in the home who probably know how to get their way more often than not, I thought.
Another activity involves the residents each holding a crude musical instrument, either a squeaky hammer or a plastic shaker that tocks audibly when shaken. As the famous CNY song, ‘恭喜恭喜’ plays, Sherry conducts the residents to shake or hammer at a specific rhythm at each phrase, depending upon which instrument they held; not unlike a music class in school. It took a few tries of practice, but soon the residents got the hang of it, and the full song started playing.
I notice a Malay resident tapping competently and consistently with his instrument, and approach him.
“Wow, you’ve got a good sense of rhythm, Uncle!”
“Of course, I used to be a drummer in a band back in school!”
That must have been at least forty to fifty years ago, I thought.
“But now, not that good already, I can only use one hand you see.”
He gestures to his left arm lying between his thighs, motionless.
“What happened to your arm?”
“Diabetes. Then doctor operate lah. You see they operate my head also, got one hole.”
He pushes his hair up, exposing an indent the size of a lemon at the top of his forehead.
“When did they operate on you?”
“Since 2010. In and out of the hospital. Then in 2017, I came to this home. My children sent me here.”
He has only been here for a year, I thought.
“And your children, do they come and visit you regularly?”
“No.” He pauses and looks down with a momentary look of sadness. I observe at that moment the depth of his emotion. I squat to lower myself down to the level of his wheelchair.
“You know, Uncle used to do Silat. You know Silat?”
I shake my head.
“Malay Martial Arts. Fighting lah. I was the top fighter, representing Singapore for competition, you know. Then Uncle later became Silat instructor, number one in Singapore, I tell you.”
He looks down again.
“But then this happened. What to do? If God wants this to happen to me, what can I do but depend on God? Have to depend on God, every day, for everything, you know. Can’t depend on yourself. Can’t depend on anything else.”
I realise this was a man who had it all, then lost everything, but his faith.
“No matter what religion you believe in, you must still trust in God. No matter what you do in life, you must trust in God. We are nothing without God, you know.”
He then grips my arm and looks at me.
“Make sure you trust in God for everything. Make sure you eat healthy also, so you don’t become like me, OK?”
I nod, noticing that today’s session had already ended and that the residents were being transported up to their wards. I hadn’t expected someone to open up and share with me so intimately his life story. I look around the room at the residents and realise then that each was a person, filled with their struggles, hopes, and decades of experience and wisdom. I wonder how many go untold and unshared.
At a coffeeshop later, I chat with Sherry.
“There’s a lot of nursing homes out there,” Sherry says, suggesting that people who feel inspired by what they are doing can start volunteering themselves in nearby nursing homes at their own time and pace.
“There are so many other old folks who need companionship...everybody has a story to tell.”
As I push Uncle into the elevator, he asks about my plans for my studies. We reach his ward and head towards his bed, the furthest into the room, and it was time to say goodbye. I was thankful for this unexpected friendship.
“Thanks for pushing me up here ah. All the best for your studies. Remember, always depend on God. I pray that God will always guide you. I won’t forget you, make sure you remember Uncle. Remember me!”