Friday 18 November 2011

Help on the doorstep for seniors - Seniors Service Centre

Centre at void deck of studio apartments for elderly offers free and paid care services
By Cheryl Ong & Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 17 Nov 2011

MS SUSAN Low, 60, struggled to care for her 90-year-old father after she suffered a stroke in 2008 that paralysed the left half of her body.

Ms Low, who is single and lives with her father, was worried that one of them might fall at home and there would be no one around to help them.

But she rests easy now, knowing that there is a seniors service centre at the void deck of her Housing Board studio apartment block in Bishan, ready to respond if they need help.

'It isn't easy, being a senior citizen myself with my father to care for, so that's why I feel more secure living in this studio apartment with the centre downstairs,' said Ms Low, a former HewlettPackard employee. She has a younger sister who supports them financially.

The centre is one of several solutions that the Government is exploring to help Singaporeans who are unable to rely on their families for support when they grow older.

Opened in January, it is the first such commercially run centre which offers free and paid services to residents of Bishan's Golden Jasmine studio apartments, which are designed for the elderly.

Three of such centres will be built at studio apartment projects in Queenstown, Jurong and Ang Mo Kio next year.

New elder-care options like these will be needed as the profile of the elderly changes, said experts.

At an active ageing conference last week, Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Chan Chun Sing singled out three emerging groups of seniors who may not have family as their 'first line of support'.

They are seniors with aged parents to care for, those whose children live abroad and those who have never married or do not have children.

In 2009, 8 per cent of those aged 65 and above - or 26,400 of them - were living with one child aged above 55, said the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS).

Last year, those living alone made up 8 per cent of the elderly. Singles now make up 5 per cent of the elderly, but the number is expected to rise.

Meet the 'GJ residents'

AT GOLDEN Jasmine, the seniors service centre, known as Econ Health and Wellness Centre, takes up about half of the void deck of the block.

Its bright and airy interior resembles a recreational club and it attracts scores of residents from the estate.

About half of the Golden Jasmine residents, living in 176 units, are active members of the centre. It has 400 non-resident members.

It is the commercial equivalent of seniors activity centres (SACs), which offer free services like therapy and counselling to residents of rental blocks.

As part of its free services, the Econ centre has staff who monitor the emergency alarm system installed in every studio apartment. In case of an emergency, residents yank pull cords installed in their flat and centre staff will reach their flat in five minutes to attend to them.

Since it opened in January, the centre has responded to the pull-cord alarms five times. Two were genuine cases in which the elderly residents had a giddy spell and had to be hospitalised.

'Some of the old folk have pre-existing medical conditions and if they miss their medications or don't take care, they will need our help,' said a spokesman for the centre.

It also provides free recreational facilities for the residents. A karaoke machine with a list of oldies takes pride of place in the centre, free for members to use.

The rest of the centre is equipped with shiny new exercise equipment for gym sessions as well as a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) clinic - both are chargeable services. The most popular services are the TCM consultations and treatments.

Every morning, at about 9am, a dozen or so seniors who call themselves the 'GJ residents' - GJ being short for Golden Jasmine - gather at the centre to meet fellow residents.

When The Straits Times visited the centre on Monday, they were chattering excitedly about the upcoming activities organised by a neighbour, who volunteers at the residents' committee there.

They sang karaoke then split up to go for lunch, but gathered again later in the day to tend to a herb and fruit garden in the estate.

Despite being in their 60s and 70s, they carried their age well.

'We're unburdened,' declared Mr Michael Chey, 63. 'Our children are grown-ups and have their families, and now it's time for us to enjoy our final years here,' said the former administrative staff member, who lives with his wife. They have a son who lives in Bishan as well.

The flats that the residents live in are designed with safety in mind - each comes with 1m-long pull cords installed in the toilet and living room.

Each floor has about 10 units. Each unit - no bigger than a two-room flat - has a bedroom, a toilet with grab bars and anti-slip tiles, and a kitchen just big enough for two people to move about in.

Most of the seniors keep their doors open to let in more air and to call out to neighbours strolling past.

Handrails fitted in the corridors and inside the homes are used for support and hooking walking sticks.

Only seniors aged 55 and older can apply for studio apartments. As of March, HDB had launched about 1,800 studio apartments. Another 4,000 such flats are under construction. These units are sold on a shorter lease of 30 years for between $80,000 and slightly over $100,000.

Living with neighbours from the same generation is a perk for Madam Rose Tan, 67, who lives in Golden Jasmine with her husband Eddie Chan, 66. They sold their five-room flat in Sengkang last year.

They have two daughters, one of whom lives in the United States with her American husband. Their second daughter does not live with them.

The housewife has formed close friendships with a group of seniors who visit the service centre every morning for karaoke and get-togethers.

'Even when we lived in Sengkang with young families next to us, we didn't see them very often because they're usually busy working or looking after their children,' she said.

Coping with the 'new' old

THE Government is working with voluntary welfare organisations and private companies to offer more elder-centric services such as day-care centres and seniors service centres, said an MCYS spokesman.

Geriatric specialist Carol Tan-Goh noted that the trend of the elderly turning to options other than their family for help is not unique to Singapore.

She said: 'America, Australia and even the Asian countries are increasingly seeing the emergence of more of these groups of people.'

Sociologist Angelique Chan, who heads the Tsao Foundation Ageing Research Initiative at the National University of Singapore, said the Golden Jasmine model is a move in the right direction, but more needs to be done.

'I think there is a need for more assistive living. That model is good but we also need centres to be doing regular checks on the elderly and not only in emergencies when they ring the alarm,' she said.

She is also worried about seniors who are living in studio apartments.

'They need to be roped into communal activities. As it is, more elderly are having cognitive impairments - the number of people with dementia will quadruple in 20 years' time,' she noted.

But Mr Gerard Ee, chairman of the Council for Third Age, which promotes active ageing, pointed out that the studio apartment residents are not entirely cut off from the rest of the neighbourhood.

'Most are located in mixed housing estates, so it's not true to say that the seniors are fenced off like in a retirement village and can mingle only with their own peers,' he said.

Mr Benny Yeo, who has been in charge of a kindergarten and day-care services at Tampines East for the past 10 years, feels that the different caregiving models should be location-specific as they suit different demographics.

'An estate may have more elderly who are frailer and therefore need more day-care and nursing services, while younger estates may need only seniors activity centres to engage the more mobile elderly in social activities,' he said.

Eventually, all HDB flats and estates may need to be retrofitted with elderly- friendly features to meet the needs of a rapidly ageing population, some experts pointed out. A pilot project in Marine Parade is already under way and will be extended nationwide if it is viable.

Said Marine Parade Citizens Consultative Committee chairman Chua Ee Chek, who is involved in the project: 'In the past, our architects used to focus on aesthetics like colour and design.

'Now, we are emphasising more on functionality, like whether it is safe and if it improves accessibility.'

What is provided


Monitoring of alert alarm system: The centre's care manager monitors the system for every household in Golden Jasmine during opening hours from 9am to 6pm. If the alarm is sounded after opening hours, residents will respond and provide help.
Information and referral counter: Staff will help residents having problems with their household equipment or facilities, or link them up with relevant government agencies or companies when needed.


Traditional Chinese medicine services start from $10 for a consultation. The cost varies after that for treatments such as acupuncture, tuina and cupping.

Physiotherapy and rehabilitation services. Use of the equipment for exercise costs about $56 a month, but charges vary for those undergoing personalised therapy sessions.

Talks and workshops are free for Golden Jasmine residents and centre members. Other participants need to pay $5 each to attend.

Golden Jasmine residents get free membership to the centre and discounts for the services. It costs non-residents $10 every two years to become a member of the centre in order to use its facilities.

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