July 1, 2011

SINGAPORE: Ageing Singapore prepares for grey future

SINGAPORE / Agence France Presse / June 30, 2011

By Simin Wang - AFP

Leong Liu Kie is a 71-year-old Singaporean nurse -- but she is a youngster compared to some of her patients. In a country with a rapidly ageing population, Leong looks after residents at the Moral Home for the Aged Sick -- one of them is 101 years old -- and is on call 24 hours a day as the charity's nursing director.

Myanmese nurse Thu Zar Aye (C) feeds a patient at a nursing home in Singapore (AFP/File, Simin Wang)

From holding patients' hands to whispering words of comfort, Leong is the human face of a growth industry linked to the greying of the city-state.

"When you work with old people, you've got to attend to every person's needs, because different people have different needs," the slim, bespectacled grandmother of four told AFP.

Like other affluent Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, Singapore's demographic profile is being drastically transformed by falling birth rates and longer lifespans.

Officials say 20 percent of Singaporeans will be 65 or older by 2030.

This has spawned businesses catering to the elderly, from hiring foreign caregivers and designing wheelchair-friendly homes to developing high-tech devices that alert emergency services when a senior citizen needs help.

A United Nations study cited by the Asian Development Bank estimated that Asia would have 859 million people aged 65 and above by 2050, up from 269 million in 2010.

Xperiential Events, a Singaporean firm that sets up business fairs aimed at tapping the elderly market, said a report it commissioned shows that the spending power of Asians aged 60 and above could top $1.9 trillion by 2015.

In anticipation of demand for elderly care, the Singapore government is expanding facilities to care for its older citizens.

"The Ministry of Health will be expanding nursing home capacity by some 60 percent over the next decade to 15,000 beds," a spokesperson told AFP.

Currently, there are 63 nursing homes with 9,300 beds operated by private businesses and volunteer welfare groups.

Unlike in the past, when three generations often lived under one roof, more senior citizens choose to live apart from their children and grandchildren while remaining accessible to them. "They want to have independent lifestyles," said Lee-Loy Kwee Wah, an official at the government's Housing Development Board (HDB).

Retiree Anna Choong hangs her top on a retractable clothes line in her elderly studio apartment in Singapore (AFP/File, Simin Wang)

Since 1999, the HDB has built two types of studio apartments for older citizens in several neighbourhoods -- one solely housing seniors and another integrated with younger residents.

These studio apartments come with features such as a ramp at the door, bigger electrical switches, solid grab bars in the toilets and an emergency cord to call for help.

Located near amenities such as clinics, markets, senior activities centres and bus stops, these self-contained flats allow seniors to look after themselves while having an active social life.

The HDB has launched for sale more than 4,500 studio apartments, with 1,800 already completed and the rest to be built over the next three years.
To aid the single elderly living alone, some companies sell alarms that allow them to seek help in times of need.


Kelvin Lek, founder of Active Medical, brought in emergency pendants from the United States after his wife's grandmother suffered a fatal stroke while home alone in 1998.




















Elderly residents wait for their turn for morning exercises at a nursing home in Singapore (AFP/File, Simin Wang)

With small devices called eAlert hung around their necks at all times, seniors can press a button to call a specialist centre in an emergency.

The centre will access their medical records, contact their families and doctors, and dispatch help as soon as possible.

"It certainly gives (families) peace of mind at work or while they are travelling, knowing that if they are away, they don't have to worry about the safety of the elderly," said Lek.

Labour-starved Singapore is expected to require more foreign caregivers in the short term but needs to encourage local citizens to take up jobs in the industry, said one analyst at a local think tank.

"The government has done well to prepare for this demographic shift by building more infrastructure to care for the elderly," said Therese Leung, an associate fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

"But there is still a significant way to go if we want to develop a local, sustainable long-term care workforce," she added.

Copyright © 2011 AFP
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