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More satisfaction in social work

It was when his wife was undergoing treatment for breast cancer that Mr Alan Wong, who had worked 25 years in the retail industry, thought about a career switch.

His wife Jennifer Long, 66, was diagnosed in 2001.

The couple, who have three adult children, went to the National Cancer Centre Singapore frequently for her chemotherapy, radiation, hormone therapy and other forms of treatment, before the disease was declared to be in remission about 10 years later.

When they were there, Mr Wong, 57, heard cancer patients talking about how they did not want treatment because it was costly and they did not want to burden their families. He also found out how some of the patients' anxiety was eased when they spoke to medical social workers, whose services include counselling and referring cases to the right places for financial assistance.

Mr Wong, who had worked at companies such as Watsons, Guardian and Bata, was impressed by the medical social workers.

"I told myself this was something I wanted to do."

Thoughts of switching to the profession - which meant a complete career change and getting new qualifications - entered his head. He shelved those thoughts for several years.

It was only when he saw an advertisement for SIM University that he took the leap, signing up, at the age of 50, for a bachelor's degree course in social work in 2010. He says: "At that time, I thought I had a good 17 more years to contribute actively. I thought I would work until 67."

After he completed the three- year course, he went on to a master's degree programme in gerontology at the same university, which he completed last year.

He had to attend 7.30pm classes about three times a week for both courses after knocking off work at 6pm, which was tiring for him. He was then working as a mailroom operations manager.

But one advantage of retraining in his 50s was that he and Madam Long, a private tutor, were able to afford the school fees, about half of which were covered by government and other grants.

Switching to social work also meant a pay cut.

"We have no financial worries and we have saved enough. I knew that in social service, it is not the pay, but the fulfilment of the work that matters," he says.

In his first job as a manager at a non-profit organisation that supports people with disabilities, he took a pay cut of about 50 per cent.

After three years there, he worked for six months as an assistant director at a welfare organisation that helps the elderly.

But he was not happy. "Instead of hands-on social work, I ended up doing managerial work," he says.

This year, he joined welfare group Awwa, where he is part of a team whose services include home- based therapy and care for people with multiple disabilities.

He also arranges outings for those with severe disabilities to help reduce their social isolation.

He has encountered clients who had not left their homes in years and those who saw planes for the first time on an outing to the airport.

"Finally, I get to do what I wanted. Finally, I'm a social worker. I interact with clients. I can see a client's face glow, his smile, his appreciation. I can actually touch a life," he says. "I should have got into this earlier."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 28, 2016, with the headline 'More satisfaction in social work'. Print Edition | Subscribe