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Bonding with grandma

While some grandparents enjoy close ties with their grandchildren, other seniors face a changing role compared with their forebears

After Ms Lee Chang Xi, 29, earned her bachelor's degree in business studies, she co-founded a company that was partly inspired by her grandmother - an e-commerce store for eldercare products.

While she was in her second year at National University of Singapore, she went on a six-month exchange programme to Denmark. In the Danish city of Aarhus, she noticed seniors were often out and about, doing their own shopping even if they needed to use walking aids.

Such an independent culture surrounding ageing was something she saw less of among the elderly in Singapore, but it was mirrored in her grandmother, Madam Lily Tan, 94.

Madam Tan, who is widowed, walked to the market and the hair salon by herself, into her 90s. She lived with Ms Lee and her family for the best part of 10 years before moving to her son's home last year, where such amenities are located farther away. Madam Tan has four children, 12 grandchildren and two great-grandsons.

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Ms Lee and her friend, Ms Vanessa Keng, 29, who had also gone on the trip to Denmark, set up The Golden Concepts to sell eldercare products because "we felt there was more to be done in helping the elderly live life to the fullest".

Ms Lee, who is not married, adds: "Since I was young, I've been very close to my grandma. I felt that it would be meaningful if I could do something to help her continue her independent lifestyle."

The demands of work and education often make it difficult to have family time, including spending time with one's grandparents. On the other hand, intergenerational support has become more important than before.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR XIAO HONG, director of the master of science programme in applied gerontology at Nanyang Technological University

In 2011, one month after graduation, Ms Lee and her friend registered their company.

"I'm the tester for any new products," says Madam Tan, who is also featured on the company's Facebook page as an ambassador for the business, which has grown to include an office, warehouse and showroom and five other staff apart from the founders.

Madam Tan has road-tested products such as walking sticks and other mobility aids and bed rails.

Grandmother and granddaughter maintain their close bond by meeting regularly, including for weekly dinners involving the extended family.

Ms Lee says they enjoy each other's company and sometimes play musical instruments together: she on the guitar and her grandmother on the ukulele. She also takes occasional half-days off to spend time with Madam Tan.

While there are grandchildren such as Ms Lee who enjoy close ties with their grandparents, other grandparents increasingly face a changing role, compared with their forebears, says Ms Janice Goh, president of Wings, a society that supports women aged 40 and older in ageing gracefully.

Grandparents continue to play an important role in caring for the young and imparting traditional values, but there are also seniors, who may be more educated and financially independent, who live apart from their families and this lack of proximity can affect intergenerational ties, says Ms Goh.

For Mrs Amta Mama, 82, however, living continents away from some of her family members has not affected their familial bonds.

Her American grandson, 25-year- old Aziz Mama, who visited his grandmother in Singapore recently, says: "We've been close for a long time because she used to spend half the year in Singapore and half the year in the United States."

Starting from the time Mr Mama was born, Mrs Mama helped care for him and her three other grandchildren, shuttling between her son's family in the US and another son's family in Singapore, with whom she lives.

Mr Mama, an accountant who lives in New Jersey, has a 22-year- old sister, and Mrs Mama has two other granddaughters - aged 17 and 13 - in Singapore. She makes regular visits to the US, as does the American side of her family to Singapore.

"In my eyes, the grandchildren are still small. But before, I was teaching them, now, they're teaching me," says Mrs Mama, who is widowed.

In recent years, the younger members of the family taught her to use the iPad for e-mail and to watch Hindi movies on YouTube, as well as how to use WhatsApp on her smartphone, which is how they often keep in touch.

Mr Mama and his grandmother share similar interests such as cooking. She taught him and his younger sister to cook dishes such as chapati and chicken curry.

Both sides make the effort to remain close. Mrs Mama, for example, has read the Harry Potter series three times so that she could discuss the books with all four of her grandchildren.

Ms Vicky Ho, head of research and development at Focus on the Family Singapore, says: "Unless we are intentional in prioritising time for our grandparents, it is easy to allow other more immediate needs to take precedence.

"Where spending time with grandparents was not a regular family practice when the grandchildren were young, it may be even more challenging to cultivate a family routine that involves the grandparents."

Associate Professor Xiao Hong, director of the master of science programme in applied gerontology at Nanyang Technological University, says: "The demands of work and education often make it difficult to have family time, including spending time with one's grandparents. On the other hand, intergenerational support has become more important than before."

In an ageing society, there will be more older people potentially relying on fewer younger people, which has economic and social implications.

For example, says Dr Xiao, who is from NTU's division of sociology, while younger Singaporeans may be busier, their elders may need them even if they live apart.

The seniors may need help in getting household items fixed or taking them to and from the hospital if they have health issues, especially if the seniors are not fluent in English.

Mr Robert Lim, 84, says he is close to his grandson Eugene, who visits him and his wife every Sunday to help him organise his hypertension medication for the week ahead, packing pills that have to be taken three times a day.

Mr Eugene Lim, 27, who runs a business selling customised computers, says it was only in recent years, when his grandfather underwent surgery for a medical issue, that he decided to see his grandparents at least once a week.

His grandparents used to live with his family and had taken care of him. They moved out when he was 17.

"Having them around for 17 years meant it was easier to see them and eat with them - you take these things for granted. I realised I was not spending enough time with them," says Mr Lim whom his grandfather describes as being "filial".

Grandparents and their offspring may face role reversals that both sides have to adapt to, says Professor Kalyani K. Mehta, head of the gerontology programme at Singapore University of Social Sciences.

"When health starts to deteriorate for many, the roles of grandparents may change from caregiver to care recipient and communication patterns may change due to sensory and other limitations such as hearing loss," says Prof Mehta.

Advertising executive Mohammad Haziq Mohamed Hussain, 25, who lives with his parents, younger brother and grandparents, says he has been more aware in the past few years that his grandparents are ageing, as they have been in hospital for minor health problems a couple of times.

Mr Haziq says: "I'm grateful that I see them every day and I still talk to them every day. It's the simple things.

"Sometimes, my grandmother wants to sit next to me, to eat with me. In the past, she would be the one cooking and she would ask: 'Have you eaten?'"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 09, 2017, with the headline 'Bonding with grandma'. Print Edition | Subscribe