Who Cares?

Art residency : Exactly Foundation, July – Nov 2016

Exhibition & Book Launch : Objectifs – Centre for Photography and Film, 14 – 24 Sep 2017

artist’s statement

Who are the real caregivers for our seniors?

In Singapore, it is widely assumed that the young and “the community” should take care of the old.  Even our social welfare policies are shaped by these assumptions.  Singaporeans receive generous government subsidies for living near, or with, their parents such as priority queue for HDBs.  Time and again, we hear of surveys that most seniors want to stay in their own home. We see childcare centres being built near senior activity centres and nursing homes, included within HDB estates.  All to ensure that Singaporeans can provide better care for their aging parents while raising their families.

Are these really the best options for the elderly – bringing the young and old together, expecting the young to be the main caregivers?  What if the senior doesn’t have any young?

~

An elderly couple lives together with his son and his young family – a beautiful wife and two little children.  On the surface, they are Singapore’s model family of three generations under one roof.  The reality, however, is a heart-wrenching story of a deeply divisive family bound by duty and hatred.

While there are seniors who are dearly loved and cared for by their children or family members, many working adults are simply too busy to provide proper care for their aging parents.  To solve this problem, many Singaporeans hire foreign domestic workers (FDWs) – often just called “maids” – as caregivers for the elderly.

However, in Singapore, FDWs are neither recognized nor trained as professional caregivers.  To date, there is no official plan (that I know of) to professionalize the job of caregiving by FDWs.

Without proper care by family members or FDWs, who is to take care of the elderly?  What options do they have, besides going to a nursing home?

~

In a quiet corner of Waterloo Centre — in the heart of Singapore’s commercial district – 12 elderly folks lived seemingly peacefully in a shelter run by a Catholic church.  These folks are poor, homeless, and have no family support, but they’re able-bodied and independent.  The shelter provides basic needs for them – private bedrooms, shared bathrooms, a pantry, a common area with TV – and a small allowance to buy food for themselves.  Besides a mandatory thirty-minute morning exercise every weekday, and a weekly visit by a qualified doctor, the residents are left to themselves.

These 12 folks are among the happiest seniors I’ve met.  Despite surviving only on basics, they have enough to eat, are free to do anything and go anywhere.  They have friends around them all the time – not young volunteers and social workers, but fellow seniors they can relate to.

This isn’t a nursing home environment, where six to nine patients share a ward, sleep in hospital beds, fed regimented meals cooked for hundreds of “patients” en masse, and are confined in a walled community controlled by nurses.

Why aren’t there more options for our seniors to age with dignity?

“Despite the years of discussion, long-term private and public residential care options for the elderly are limited.  For many frail elderly people who live with family without the necessary time or nursing expertise, or for those living alone who are unable to hire a full-time helper, nursing homes remain their main option.”[1]

As Singapore continues to advance as a first-world nation, there remains a gap between our “modern world” and the aging population.  A void persists between a generation driven by statistics and a community of seniors and seniors-to-be who need – and want – to be understood.  What we understand now may not be relevant in 2030, when our land will be swarmed by almost a million elderly people who need our care. We must plan for a future generation of seniors with very different needs: seniors with different dreams, seniors connected to a virtual global community, seniors who value the power of choice.

~

I treasure every conversation with the elderly because their experiences are so rich with history, knowledge and wisdom.  When Home Nursing Foundation (HNF)[2] called me to photograph their elderly patients – a project named “Portraits of Love” – I was elated.  This was a great opportunity to empathise and learn from our seniors.

In time, “Portraits of Love” morphed into a large-scale project to publicise HNF’s services.  This was wonderful for the aging community as HNF has improved the lives of many seniors.  However, this also meant that we could only publish photographs and stories which fit the project’s purpose – happy seniors.

I wished I could have done more.  Many seniors wanted to be heard and understood.  How can we understand and help them, if we only hear a select part of their stories?

For this reason, I am extremely grateful to be working with Exactly Foundation on Who Cares?.  Instead of stifling creativity and free expression, the Foundation encouraged me to dive even deeper into the seniors’ stories, resulting in a much more profound understanding of their needs.

The most important experience in this project, for me, is stepping out from the emotional depths of the elderlies’ stories and asking pragmatic questions on what elder-care really means.  It is through this experience that I feel empowered to engage in effective conversations, ask good questions and discuss solutions for our seniors.

When our time comes, can we all age with dignity and grace? And how?

Footnotes:

1 “Growing old: Should you be worried?” by Janice Tai, The Straits Times, November 5, 2016

2 A non-profit organisation that provides home nursing and medical care for home-bound patients.

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