Almost every day, Madam Ho Yee Mooi visits a senior activity centre in Kreta Ayer near Chinatown, where she can meet her friends, exercise and play games. Although she needs to rely on a walking stick to make the trip some days, the 97-year-old says it is important for her to leave the house and talk to other people.
“If I stayed at home alone and faced the four walls all day, I would be very unhappy and become unhealthy,” said the fiercely independent senior, who also makes it a point to take short walks on Sundays when the centre is closed.
This indomitable spirit dates from Madam Ho’s days as one of the Samsui women, who literally helped to build modern Singapore. Even today, she keeps her one-room flat, where she lives alone, spick and span, and sews her own clothes from cloth given to her by the centre.
Like Madam Ho, most of the 50 seniors who are regulars at the Kreta Ayer senior activity centre are self-sufficient and content to spend their time chatting with their friends and doting on their family, said the centre’s manager Florence Loh.
Others who drop in more occasionally have jobs, including as cleaners and drinks assistants at hawker centres, and are eager to keep working while they are still healthy.
But there are also elderly folk who are too weak to even walk to the centre, and need special care, Ms Loh added. The number of such ailing seniors has increased dramatically over the last few years.
Then there are those who have shut themselves in their homes and grapple with loneliness on their own. In the two blocks of rental flats near the centre, some seniors turn away volunteers who conduct home visits to see if they need help, said Ms Loh.
The many different faces of the elderly in Kreta Ayer give a hint of the challenges and opportunities that Singapore will soon experience on a much larger scale.
Singapore’s rapidly aging population means that by 2030, the nation will join 33 others as a “super-aged” country, where one in five people are aged 65 or older. This silvering trend will touch every aspect of Singapore’s society and economy, from its fiscal policies to its generational dynamics.
Around the world, the experiences of other maturing countries have already illuminated the path that lies ahead for Singapore.
In Japan, where one in four citizens is aged 65 or older, the number of workers paying taxes has shrunk even as the state’s pension bill has steadily increased. With fewer working people to support a growing pool of seniors, the Japanese government has been saddled with the highest public debt relative to the size of its economy among industrialised economies.
A similar problem is playing out in Britain, where the government’s pension bill is expected to quadruple over the next six decades as the population ages. The British government has forecast that its pension fund will be exhausted by 2027, although some analysts have warned that it might be sooner.
Faced with growing calls on the pension purse, many countries have taken to delaying pension payments and raising the retirement age. This allows workers to remain employed for a longer time, contributing to economic growth and relying less on the state.
Sweden, for example, introduced a tiered pension scheme where pension payouts are higher the later one retires. Japan is gradually raising its retirement age to 65 by the year 2025, while Greece plans to move its threshold from 65 to 67 and Britain has scrapped the idea of an official retirement age completely.
Financial worries aside, there are also social tensions which could emerge with an ageing population.
In Japan, eight million people, or six per cent of the population, suffer from dementia or show signs of developing it, and the figure will continue to rise as the population ages. This trend has put pressure on their caregivers, who are already under increasing stress as each family has fewer children to support the older generation.
The number of seniors abused by their family members surged to more than 15,000 in 2012, a 21 per cent jump from 2006, and half of the abused elderly had dementia, according to a Japan Health Ministry survey.
In South Korea, the generational conflict has led to fights over train seats between the young and the elderly. There have also been several – so far unsuccessful – petitions by the young to scrap welfare programmes, such as free train rides, for seniors.
Singapore has taken steps to minimise such potential intergenerational stresses. The Central Provident Fund (CPF) system encourages self-reliance by making each individual responsible for his or her own retirement needs, rather than burdening future generations with ever-increasing taxes. The Government steps in to meaningfully supplement the retirement needs of lower-income Singaporeans.
While strong family ties and support continue to be a critical aspect of ensuring that older Singaporeans can retire comfortably, these policies take some of the strain of caring for the old off the shoulders of the young, helping to strengthen family and community bonds.
Still, retirement adequacy will be an ongoing worry as living costs continue to rise. And Singapore will have a shorter time to come to terms with this problem than many other nations.
Countries like France took about 115 years to transition from an ageing to an aged society. Singapore will make that same shift in a short 18 years, faster than countries such as Britain, South Korea and even Japan. To adapt successfully, Singapore must move swiftly to change societal mindsets and implement an eco-system of support for the elderly.
“The older workers have been doing projects for a long time, and they know how to do it efficiently. They can teach the younger workers how to avoid common mistakes, and I can always rely on them to complete the works on time and within budget.”
— Mr Melvin Tan, managing director of engineering and construction company Cyclect
But amid the challenges of ageing lie some silver linings.
Singaporeans generally remain healthy in their early twilight years, and many continue to be active contributors to society and the economy. To tap on their expertise and experience, Singapore will raise its rehiring age from 65 to 67.
The move will benefit companies such as engineering and construction services firm Cyclect. Of the 116 technicians and engineers in its marine and offshore division, a third of them are in their 50s or older. The older workers act as supervisors in electrical engineering and installation projects, for example when Cyclect took charge of the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix’s electrical works in 2014. Its managing director Melvin Tan said: “Our older workers have built up a storehouse of knowledge and skills in repairing and maintaining all sorts of machinery. They may not be able to carry out very physically demanding jobs due to their age, but we pair them with younger staff so that they can pass on their expertise.”
German carmaker BMW has had a similar experience. It has gone the extra mile to retain its older, experienced employees by adapting one of its production lines to suit them. These senior workers sit on ergonomic chairs, and the plant has better lighting and mobile trolleys to help them. So far, they have outperformed their younger peers, by producing as many parts but with fewer faults. The Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin also found that workers aged 65 and older are generally more productive and reliable than their younger colleagues.
With Singaporeans continuing to work and earn an income for a longer period of time, seniors are increasingly seen not only as dependents but also as consumers. The booming silver economy is another way Singapore can benefit from an ageing population.
Business consultancy Ageing Asia has estimated that the silver market in Asia Pacific could be worth US$3 trillion (S$4 trillion) by 2017. It says Singapore comes in third in the region in terms of offering the most potential for businesses catering to the elderly, after Hong Kong and Australia.
Companies like telecommunications firm SingTel have been quick to capitalise on this trend. SingTel recently launched discounted mobile phone plans for seniors, “so they can share photos and videos of their grandchildren, or play games, all with total peace of mind”.
Two Singaporeans in their 20s, Mr Aaron Boo and Ms Serene Tan, founded a start-up called Sorgen, which means “care” in German, to build products for seniors. Their first innovation was a set of walking frames with safety-enabled wheels, so that elderly folks do not have to lift the frames to move forward.
Businesses in other countries are also jumping on the silver bandwagon. In Japan, the country’s largest supermarket group, Aeon, opened a shopping mall for the elderly. The mall boasts clinics, discounts on pension payment days and 140 leisure activities for seniors.
Over in Germany, researchers are working on a shoe for the elderly that would generate power through walking, and use the energy to lace and unlace itself.
“It’s important for older people to get out of the house and talk to people. You’re not just helping the other person, you’re helping yourself too.”
— Ms Sakina Hoosenally, a yoga teacher in her 60s who hosts a podcast for the elderly to encourage them to volunteer.
But businesses are not the only ones that can benefit from an ageing society. Singapore can also build a stronger and more cohesive community when people and organisations take the initiative to help the elderly, and realise that the seniors have much to contribute in return.
In 2014, four undergraduates at the National University of Singapore started a project to pair the young and old in Singapore so they can learn from one another. The youngsters were able to hear first-hand accounts of Singapore’s history and seek advice from the older generation, and teach the seniors in turn how to handle modern devices like the iPhone.
In 2015, a group of senior Singaporeans signed up to learn how to be relief caregivers for families who need help with their elderly. Mr Seow Hock Chye, a 68-year-old retiree volunteer, said age was no barrier to being a helpful member of society. “If I am still fit enough to contribute, I will continue to help,” he told The New Paper. “Sometimes, people just want company. Small gestures like holding their hand or talking to them may seem like simple things, but it can mean a lot to them.”
Singapore can also learn from the already super-aged countries like Japan and Germany.
In Japan, some senior centres and childcare providers are pairing up to create institutions called yoro shisetsu, which translates to “facilities for children and the elderly”.
The seniors volunteer in the nurseries, helping with tasks such as serving meals and changing the infants’ diapers. The seniors say the time with the children makes them feel more energised and fulfilled, while the children are more likely to respect and care for the elderly.
With some ingenuity, the Republic could turn the ageing population into a rising tide that lifts all boats.
Take Madam Ho from the Kreta Ayer centre. Although she is hard of hearing and has to walk slowly, she still does what she can to help, including rearranging the chairs after meals for activities. The former Samsui woman also keeps her mind sharp by playing games like Sudoku.
The centre’s Ms Loh said: “Sometimes when she wants to come to the centre, she’ll do it even if she needs help from the volunteers to walk here.”
“People like her are why we should never underestimate the elderly in Singapore.”