What happens when your husband, who used to handle everything dies & you’re told to move out?
Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.
They told us to move, published in 2019 by Ethos Books, is centred around the Dakota residents and Cassia Resettlement Team.
The book, which you can buy a copy of here, tells the story of the relocation through interviews with the residents from the Dakota community and reflections by the volunteers. Accompanying these are essays by various academics on different issues, such as urban planning, social services, citizenship and family.
Vanessa Lim, a volunteer who just graduated from junior college, contributed an essay titled “There’s no such thing as too much love” in response to her interactions with Chin, a 56-year-old woman whose husband recently passed away.
We reproduce extracts from the interview with Chin, as well as Lim’s reflection, here.
Interview with Chin
What feelings do you have for this place? For the people here?
Most have moved away. I don’t feel very much anymore. Most have moved away and we have lost touch.
Will your niece be moving in with you?
No, she will live elsewhere. The new place is too small. She won’t be able to stay, it’s too small. I’ll be living alone once I move over.
Are you worried about living on your own?
There’s nothing to worry about. I just have to be careful, be careful not to fall again. I can’t imagine what would happen if I have another fall. [Laughs]
Maybe you need an alarm. So if you fall…
Maybe it’s in the new flat, so I can call for help if I fall. I’m not sure if it’s installed. But I’ll have to be careful, do things slowly. I’m very impatient, I like to do everything quickly.
Are you looking forward to the move?
After we sign and collect the keys on Monday, we have to paint the flat? It would be good to paint. Otherwise I don’t like the colour, it’s white. I would like a bit of pink, light pink. After painting, we can wash the place and move in.
It used to be very lively here. Now it’s so quiet. The government wants this place, we have no choice. It used to be all families here. Then the children grew up, all moved out, and left the elderly folks behind.
How old are you?
56 years old. I’m getting old, it’s almost time! [Laughs]
Don’t say that…
[Chin tears up]
What is it?
I’m thinking how it has come to this. My leg hurts so much.
How did you fall?
Maybe it’s… I slipped on water, I didn’t clean up the spill, and I slipped on it. I was also feeling faint because of low blood sugar. When I fell, I called my nephew but he didn’t pick up, my niece also didn’t pick up. I was really disheartened. Why is it when you really need someone, they’re not there? I was really upset. I prayed for help, help to get off the floor, because I was really struggling.
There are people who care for you.
They do care for me. My nieces, they are very caring. My friends are very caring too. It’s just that people are busy with their own things. My older brother and younger brother, they are good to me. But I try not to stay in touch too much. Maybe because I feel ashamed. Maybe it’s my own shame. They’re all doing so well. But I’m all alone, like this. I feel inferior, really ashamed.
That day at HDB, did you find the staff helpful?
Okay lah. When we went to collect keys, the person at the counter was very helpful.
So you understood all the documents you had to sign?
Yes. When I didn’t understand anything, my nephew would tell me. So all the documents, everything, I signed properly.
You didn’t just sign without knowing what you were signing?
No, my nephew helped me, I only signed the papers after he explained them to me. Otherwise, what if something goes wrong? So I needed him to explain. All the GIRO payments, everything, my nephew explained before I sign.
You also have other friends who can help you with these things?
Yes. Because before my husband passed away, he told me, and he told the people at the daycare, he said, when I’m no longer around, my wife will need you. Please help her. And they said yes. He said please help as much as you can, because she doesn’t know much. The daycare people all said okay. So I’m very grateful to them. My husband made all these arrangements.
Do you think you don’t know much?
I’m slowly learning. In the past, I really didn’t know anything. My husband took care of everything and I didn’t bother. I just let him do everything. Like those housing matters. Things to sign, to do, I didn’t bother with them, I just let him do it. I just signed what I had to sign, that’s all.
What were your responsibilities in the household?
Cooking. When I was well, I would cook, take care of other people’s children. I cooked and did the chores. But after the stroke, I didn’t do anything, because I felt very low. But now it’s better. My friends encouraged me, my church friends. They said, you must be brave, you must go on. Slowly, I know I can.
Is the move making you want to learn more things?
Yes. That’s how I got thinking — after I move, I will be living alone, how I should treat my neighbours. I won’t know those neighbours. I don’t know if they’ll be good people. But we have to greet them first. That’s how.
You’ll go and greet them?
Yes, I will say “hello” to them. [Laughs]
[…] When my husband was sick, even when he was aching all over, he would go out and buy food for me. It broke my heart because when he was sick, he did not rest well. He was always more concerned for me, but I couldn’t take care of him. Once, he had a fall outside, and I couldn’t lift him up. He needed my help, but I couldn’t manage… [Chin weeps]
We were married for 37 years and only fought once. Other than that, we never fought. The one time we argued, it was because he wouldn’t let me help him. When he wasn’t feeling well, I wanted to do all these things for him, but he didn’t want that. He said he could do it slowly by himself. He asked me not to worry so much. How could I not worry?
When the new flats were up, he was very excited, and was talking about what he wanted to do with the flat… I will remember these things always, always.
Reflection by Vanessa Ho
The first time I met Chin, she was in the midst of watching a Hong Kong TV drama series on her phone. Despite there being a television set on the far wall, she chose to squint at a small smartphone screen, propped up against a pillow on her bed.
I laughed because the whole scene was so uncannily similar to what I often see at home: my grandmother, also an Asian TV drama enthusiast, would also watch catch-up TV on the iPad.
I told this to Chin, and we had a short but amusing conversation about all the soaps that were currently playing on Channel 8.
In later conversations, Chin shared with me that most of her days are spent at the nearby church-run activity centre, where she could attend exercise sessions for her leg, meet up with friends, and engage in her favourite leisure activities like singing karaoke.
On multiple occasions, she also mentioned with a smile how her nephew would come by regularly, bring her to church, take her shopping, accompany her to the hospital, and attend to any of her needs.
Chin was fortunate to have support
When her husband passed away the year before due to cancer, Chin was very fortunate to have her friends from church, who stayed by her side and took care of her during her period of grief. They also helped her out during her move from Dakota to Cassia.
When asked if she talks much to her neighbours at Cassia, Chin says she does not, as she spends most of her day at the activity centre. Chin and her husband started attending church together a few years ago.
She recounts how her husband had persuaded her to go to church and become a Christian, as the people in church are a “community-loving people”.
Listening to all this, I could sense that, for the most part, Chin was happy and well-cared for.
This was comforting for me to hear, because in contrast to many of the elderly residents I’ve met at Cassia, Chin had the love and support of a strong network of people, both in her church community, and from her niece and nephew who see to her needs regularly.
Some residents, however, aren’t so lucky
Not every resident of Cassia is as fortunate.
Another resident once shared with me that he did not trust his relatives to take care of him as he suspected that his son had been stealing his money. That resident also has difficulty walking and is mostly wheelchair-bound.
As a result, apart from the weekend lunches that we bring him to, he rarely ventures outside his own home. To think that familial support is absent for many elderly residents in Cassia is a saddening thought.
I believe that being able to fundamentally feel invested as a part of one’s community is something every person needs and deserves, humans being social creatures.
It is also a form of basic dignity that one’s emotional needs are attended to, alongside our physical needs.
So as volunteers with the Cassia Resettlement Team (CRT), I appreciate very much that we always seek to first befriend and to understand before all else. This is because we recognise that physical and emotional support from the community comes organically and naturally when the people of a community care for one another.
Even for residents like Chin, who already have many sources of support and few urgent needs, presenting ourselves as a friend helps us build the rapport to support her better if the need arises.
Coping with feelings of loss, after moving away from longtime homes
When I first started volunteering at Cassia, I had the impression that most of the elderly people here would still have lingering feelings of loss and sadness over the move, as many had to part with homes they had lived in for decades.
When I visited Chin for a chat, she passionately recounted to me her days at Dakota Crescent, which held many happy memories of time spent with her husband before he passed.
She also mentioned that many of her old belongings had to be thrown away because her new flat was much smaller than her old one and did not have enough space.
The loss of old possessions and having to part with a place filled with history and memories was something echoed by other residents, and while many of them would express sadness for their loss, they would ultimately conclude that nothing much could be done and there was little point in being sad over it.
While it is encouraging to see that many of the residents appear to want to move on and have begun adjusting to their new lifestyles, I feel that their acceptance (or resignation) should not dampen our efforts to advocate for improvements in the way relocations are handled and the quality of social services provided to elderly people.
As old housing areas in Singapore such as Rochor Centre are gradually vacated and being redeveloped, the process of relocating communities will occur time and time again; we should do our part to seek its review and improvement.
While we are not experts on mechanisms of policy change, I believe our experience as volunteers, having heard and understood the challenges Dakota Crescent residents faced during and after relocation, puts us in a unique position to bring more attention to these issues so that other communities being relocated can benefit.
Stories that hit close to home
On a more personal note, Chin’s lifestyle has much in common with that of my grandmother.
Not only have they both found the same source of never-ending entertainment (soaps and dramas), they devote time to their religion for emotional and psychological support and spend a great deal of time outside their homes interacting with close friends or relatives.
Every Sunday, the church community will ferry Chin from her home to morning church services. Similarly, my grandmother spends her Sundays at a nearby Buddhist association, and even though she has already graduated from her Buddhism classes, she still goes to attend lectures by the resident monks and sits in on other classes.
Chin also tells me how she will go out once in a while with her church friends and is very happy whenever they visit her, just like how my grandmother will occasionally go out for gatherings with her close neighbours and friends.
It is heartwarming to discover how these two women can have so much in common: in the way they live their lives, in the way they treat everyone around them with kindness, appreciation and warmth, and how at the end of the day, relationships are what they cherish most in life.
Rethinking how we view elderly people in our community
My experiences volunteering at Cassia have made me think deeper about how we view and treat elderly persons as a community.
When I volunteer at Cassia I often find myself interacting and conversing with the elderly residents just as I would with my grandmother.
While that should not be something very surprising, I found it a lot easier than I first expected. I was able to relate to them on a personal level, even if the interaction was awkward initially.
This makes me wonder if we as youths do not reflect deeply enough on the other elderly people in our society, and instead just think of them as another demographic group in society, a trend, a stereotype of “elderly characteristics” (frail, handicapped, lonely, dependent, etc.).
Perhaps in speaking about elderly people who “need help”, we instinctively separate them from those who we encounter in our daily lives, when in fact they may be very similar, in both their personalities and lived experiences.
The residents whom I have met at Cassia are tenacious, lively and constantly strive to be self-dependent.
If as a society we can begin to value elderly persons as unique individuals with diverse opinions and desires, we can perhaps reach out more to make their lives better, build homes that are more sensitive to their needs, organise community events that are truly inclusive, and much more.
Volunteering with CRT to serve the residents of Cassia has given me much to think about in how we perceive and interact with older people, and what more we can do for them apart from providing services.
Through community initiatives like the Potluck Parties and the [email protected] mini music concerts, it is clear that beyond our basic role of attending to the residents’ physical and emotional needs, we also try to get them involved in social activities that they might not have previously considered, foster closer ties between residents, and eventually build a community that will make Cassia home.
The stories and experiences of the residents at Cassia serve as a reminder that as our population continues to age, I believe the rest of the community will need to step up and take a larger role in caring for elderly people.
Top photo courtesy of Between Two Homes & Google streetview.