August 14, 2011

SINGAPORE: ‘If I had money, then I wouldn’t need to work,’ says mother of five

SINGAPORE / The Straits Times / August 14, 2011

At the crack of dawn, 67-year-old Ong Guat Eng makes her rounds at two block of flats in Yishun with her 72-year-old husband. They sweep corridors and empty the bins at void decks.

The couple have been working as cleaners for about 10 years and plan to do it for as long as their health holds up. They have no choice.

Their five adult children struggle to support families of their own on low-wage work such as repairing pipes. They scrape together about $100 in allowance for the couple, who get by on the $600 they earn together as cleaners every month.

She muses in Hokkien: ‘If I had money, then I wouldn’t need to work.’

New research shows there are thousands of elderly people like her in Singapore, who have little by way of savings and family support and likely have to work till they drop.

In fact, about 7 per cent of people above the age of 60 rely solely on work for income, according to the International Longevity Centre Singapore (ILC-Singapore), a research and policy outfit which will be launched by the Tsao Foundation later this week to promote the well-being of older people. About two-thirds of them are men, the majority with no more than secondary schooling.

Given that there are about 530,000 people above the age of 60, it means that more than 30,000 seniors work out of sheer necessity.

This is just one of the many challenges in Singapore’s fast-greying society, where about 9 per cent of the population are at least 65 years old.

This week, ILC-Singapore will release a wide-ranging report on the elderly, detailing the health, finances, living arrangements and community participation of those aged 60 and above. It draws on existing data from a variety of sources, including an extensive survey of 5,000 seniors commissioned by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports in 2009.

ILC-Singapore director Susana Concordo Harding says its report shows up ’significant differences by age and gender’, which suggests that ‘policies and programmes need to be more targeted’.

The Sunday Times had a sneak peek and was able to draw a composite picture of the 60-years-and-older group here.

•Children main source of income
Most of them live in two- or three-person households, in three- or four-room flats, and tend not to downsize their housing later in life, unlike seniors in other countries.

The majority rely mainly on children for income. Three-quarters of older women rely on children as their main source of income, compared with 43 per cent for men.

In contrast, the Central Provident Fund (CPF), the mandatory national retirement savings scheme, is the main source of income for only 5 per cent of elderly male parents and 1 per cent of their female counterparts.

Retired tutor Lim Yock Eng, for one, thinks the CPF scheme could be more flexible. She and her husband Lim Tiong Teat, both 72, live mainly on the $1,000-odd a month they get from their three adult children. On top of that, Mr Lim, who used to work as a clerk, also gets about $230 in CPF payouts every month.

Mrs Lim said: ‘If someone is working or has other sources of income, it’s okay for him to get $200 to $300 from CPF every month. But if he is not, he will need more.’

With a fully paid-up three-room flat and financial support from her children, Mrs Lim has few money woes. Still, she is frugal, even during occasional gatherings with her friends.

‘I tell them: We are now using our children’s money, so we should pay for our own food and drinks instead of giving each other treats. At the most, we buy each other coffee or tea.’

Going by the ILC-Singapore report, Mrs Lim is one of the lucky seniors.

The picture is a bit more uncertain for those without children. About 12 per cent of childless seniors rely on public assistance as their main source of income, significantly higher than the 1 per cent of their peers in general.

Work is a main source of income for 34 per cent of these seniors, implying that they will have to continue working through their old age. Yet the type of work available to them tends towards the low-wage end of the spectrum. About one-fifth of women and men above 60, for example, make a living as cleaners, labourers or workers in related jobs. Other common professions are plant and machine operators, as well as service and sales workers.

•Health a worry
Meanwhile, on the health front, hypertension is a concern. About 55 per cent of older people report having high blood pressure, most of them in the age 75 to 79 group. About a quarter suffer from diabetes.

The report also flags cognitive impairment – of which a serious form is dementia – as an area needing attention. As the affliction hinders sufferers from performing simple tasks like managing their money, early detection is vital. However, only 6 per cent of older people suffering from cognitive impairment are screened before the age of 65.

Commenting on the findings, the president of the Gerontological Society of Singapore, Professor Kua Ee Heok, stressed the need to go for preventive treatment, especially since there is evidence to show that early treatment of hypertension can prevent stroke and dementia.

Yet even that has implications on the seniors’ finances. Prof Kua, who is also a senior consultant psychiatrist at the National University Health System, said: ‘Because life expectancy is now at 80 years, if you have hypertension at 60 years, you need treatment for about 20 years. That will drain your finances.’

•Active social life
One bright spark in the report lies in the social life of seniors, which is fairly active. More than nine in 10 attend neighbourhood events organised by the residents’ committees, community clubs and community development councils at least once a week.

Housewife Soh Bee Eng, for example, keeps herself busy looking after three of her grandchildren on weekdays and attending line-dancing and cooking competitions on weekends.

The 72-year-old is also the go-to person in her community, helping frail neighbours book appointments at nearby clinics when they are ill. For her, being busy is blissful. ‘If you sit quietly in your home, your mind will go in no time,’ she said in Mandarin.

Interestingly, social participation levels do not drop among those who work. According to ILC-Singapore, 84 per cent of those who rely on work as their main source of income attend neighbourhood events once a day. This is even higher than the 79 per cent of seniors who rely on their relatives for income.

On the whole, the report pinpoints the potential of ill health and financial insecurity as the main challenges facing the current set of seniors in Singapore.

Commenting on the findings, Ms Kee Siew Poh, an executive council member of the Financial Planning Association of Singapore, thinks older Singaporeans will have to slowly be acquainted with the idea that there has been ‘a shift in the mindset of many young adults who cannot wait to get away from the expenses of having to take care of their aged parents’.

But the younger generation will have to take heed too.

Assistant Professor Angelique Chan, who heads the Tsao Foundation Ageing Research Initiative at the National University of Singapore, said they will simply have to work longer, plan their finances more carefully, and keep in tip-top shape because ‘the cost of long- term health care will inevitably rise given increasing life expectancy’.

‘The younger generation in Singapore will need to be very self-sufficient.’
- The Straits Times

Copyright © 2011 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd
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