When I hear the empty words of politicians referring to filial piety or 'how the elderly can continue to contribute' I realise just how much hot air politicians like to emit.
30 JUNE 2005
THERE is nothing more comforting than to be reminded that you were once young.
That once, you moved to the rhythm of music effortlessly; that once, you were in love and could still feel what it is to be in love when you listened to romantic melodies.
It is also empowering to find that one can be 69 or 70 and enjoy what one enjoyed twenty, thirty or even forty years ago.
I realised this the night of the Engelbert Humperdinck concert.
It was one of those rare times I felt I was not the oldest in a crowd. I saw familiar faces who were there to recall good old times that seemed to be disappearing quickly.
We were all 20 once again.
Engelbert Humperdinck reminded us - if we needed reminding at all - that life is not over yet for those of us in our 60s and 70s. Even if we may look a bit worse for wear and our faculties compromise, or if we elapse into "senior moments" now and then.
There he was on stage, a bit thicker in the middle, a bit broader in the jowls, a bit stiffer in the joints. But with the same magic that had captured audiences the world over for almost 40 years.
During the concert, for some reason I can't recall, Engelbert Humperdinck mentioned social security and asked if we got pensions.
There was this very telling silence. Reality of life for the old put a damper on the evening.
Life is difficult for older people in Singapore.
The Aware-Tsao Foundation report published recently concluded that "older women are in a particularly vulnerable position in their later life because of the lack of income over their lifetime, an old age income security system … the lack of an adequate and inclusive health care financing mechanism that covers those not in formal employment, and a family situation that can no longer sustain its care giving and providing role for its older relatives."
The report adds that the responsibility to support the older population goes beyond the immediate family.
The Government, the private sector and communities all have a role to play to ensure that the older population feels valued and able to contribute.
For instance, the estate that I live in is undergoing upgrading. It is costing many millions of public funds, no doubt.
Has it made the buildings wheelchair-friendly? No. In this supposedly family-friendly society, is any consideration given to young mothers with strollers?
Sometimes, I wonder if one arm of government knows the policies being promoted by the other arms.
I move between despair and exaltation when I think of my own old age. The exaltation comes from imagining new visions, new states of personal realisation emerging at this stage of my life.
But then, public policies in healthcare, housing, education and labour - despite new initiatives being announced recently - seriously lag behind the needs of a growing elderly population.
Health costs keep rising. There are few support systems. Nor is there sufficient financial security - even with the CPF scheme intended, ironically, for this purpose.
So, what will nourish the visions of ageing men and women like myself, who want to live independent lives?
To say that taking care of the aged is the responsibility of the family is to deny the state's responsibility to provide an environment that makes life easier for an ageing population.
It is also a denial of the reality of life for those Singaporean families which struggle to make ends meet.
One 84-year-old aunt I know has been praying for death for 10 years. Old age has made her dependent on two daughters who have, she says, the unhappy burden of looking after her.
Another 96-year-old aunt, hearty and mobile, has been shunted from son to son for 10 years.
Old age is not a blessing. And even those of us who can afford to attend a concert, can escape from the worries of ageing only for a moment.
The writer, a social activist and teacher, is a former president of Aware and SCWO.