Non-profit urges people to stop glorifying the elderly collecting cardboards as ‘active ageing’

(Image from Facebook / Happy People Helping People Community)

Non-profit foundation Happy People Helping People (HPHP) appealed to the public on their Facebook page to stop glorifying the elderly who are still working as the embodiment of “active ageing”, specifically when many are slogging it out by doing low-paying, menial work.

In particular, the page shared a story of their encounter with an old woman in her 80s or 90s who was hunched over, pushing a trolley full of cardboard boxes at Tiong Poh Rd near Tiong Bahru. The post described how HPHP had reached out to the old lady to offer their help to push the trolley for her but she declined.

They said, “There was a van and a car patiently waiting behind her while she slowly pushed her trolley along the road. We did what any human being would do (we hope), when faced with such a situation, that was to offer to push her trolley.”

However, she simply said “Nevermind. I can. I can.”

The post continued, “From experience, we know that when an old lady who are [sic] bent like that refuse help, it is because she NEEDS her trolley as a support for her to walk. Their trolley is sort of like a walking stick. Without her trolley, she may not be able to walk properly. So you see, many of these old folks who resort to collecting cardboard boxes are too old to even walk properly without any support.”

They lamented, “Why are they still trying?”

The post acknowledged that while it is “admirable” to see older people still trying despite their disabilities, Singapore as a first-world nation must not glorify this as active ageing. It added, “We have to accept that these people are too old to work, and we should offer help within our means.”

The post described how they watched her push the trolley safely into the alley before stopping to dig through the dumpers in the back alley to find empty drink can and other things to add to her stack.

The group then approached her to try to talk and offer help but she didn’t understand English. So they then gave her S$20 and asked her not to work too hard.

They explained in the post, “Just so you know to earn $20, these cardboard collectors need to find more than 200kg of cardboard boxes and push them across dangerous roads under the hot scorching sun. We really hope that she will take a break.”

Response to the post was overwhelmingly supportive as netizens praised HPHP volunteers for their kindness and offered their support to the old woman. The public was keen to help her out.

In a comment in response to the support, HPHP thanks everyone for their concern and said that they would head back to Tiong Bahru to find her again.

They also asked for the community’s help in locating her again and said they needed a volunteer who could translate for them so they can have a full conversation with her. The comment then urged people not to wait for HPHP or the government to help her but rather offer their assistance if they happen to see the old woman.

“Be a friend if you see her often. Buy her a drink or a meal. Sooner or later she will open up,” they said.

In a follow-up post a few hours later on Facebook, HPHP launched a campaign to find the old woman again so they can offer her some help from the community.

The group said it will be setting up a look out station at a coffee shop (as pictured) next week from 23 August to 30 August.

The group asked for help from netizens to sit at the coffee shop between 6 pm – 7.30 pm to wait for the woman as they think there is a “good chance” that she would use the same route again. They also asked for people to prepare angpows of S$10 or more to give to her. The group also hopes to find out if she needs daily meal sponsorships or any other form of help.

Those interested were urged to leave a comment in the post. So far, the post has garnered just over 30 comments.

Is this active ageing or simply surviving?

As Singapore’s population ages, the average age of the workforce has similarly increased as many elderly people continue to work. The government itself has been a strong advocate for the concept of active ageing and even recently announced an increase in the retirement and re-employment ages to 65-67 years.

But the thing is, is returning to work in your silver years something you do willingly and joyfully? Many go back to work due to financial pressures and high medical expenses. They do it out of necessity rather than simply to keep healthy and active.

A study released in July 2019 by insurance company Prudential revealed that Singapore’s population is ageing rather rapidly, noting that the UN’s estimation that by 2035, 26.6% of Singapore’s population will be over 65 years old, more than double the figure in 2015 (11.7%).

The report also pegged the current average lifespan of Singaporeans at 83.1 years and rising. However, it also cautioned that a greater proportion of people will also be managing one or more chronic diseases. Specifically, the report said that more than 50% of Singaporeans ages 60 and above will suffer from multi-morbidity.

In a different study released in May, the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) at National University of Singapore found that Singaporeans in their retirement age of about 65 years old would need an income of S$1,379 to meet their basic daily needs.

Unfortunately, the CPF Board revealed in their CPF Retirement Booklet that under the very Basic Retirement Sum (BRS) scheme, an elderly person at 65 can only obtain a monthly payout of $730 to $790 per month. CPF also showed that only about 55% of people over 55 years old had enough savings in the CPF account to pay for the Basic Retirement Sum in 2013, indicating that more than half of the elderly could not even get S$800 per month. These figures are well below the amount that LKYSPP estimated as a basic income for older Singaporeans.

So, to cope with the cost of living, many elderly Singaporeans are returning to work – either in offices if they are lucky or by doing laborious work like collecting and selling cardboard boxes to recycling centres. Elderly Singaporeans can be seen cleaning up trays in food courts, selling tissues, recycling cartons, and doing all manner of low-paying jobs because they cannot afford not to. It’s harrowing that as Singapore’s population ages, the rate of elderly people in poverty increases.

So, while the old woman above may simply be recycling cartons to keep herself ‘active’ as she ages, it’s also highly probable that she’s working so hard just to keep herself afloat financially and is barely surviving.

Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves, is that active ageing?

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