Seniors live here as one community

At Singapore's first seniors' home sited in a Housing Board block, residents are treated like family

Step out of the lift in this Housing Board block and one spots a metal gate, a sign saying it closes at 10pm daily, murals along the corridor, and residents' names on doors.

Two to three elderly people live in each one-room rental flat, and amid the units are purpose-built spaces such as recreation rooms, with TVs screening shows in different languages, a laundry room, a "nursing station" for nursing care, and a kitchen.

Welcome to the AWWA Senior Community Home, on the second to fourth levels of the 12-floor Block 123 in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 6.

Set up in 1976, it is the first seniors' home to be sited in an HDB rental block, and is believed to be the only one of its kind - and scale.

It started with 20 residents in another nearby block, and moved to its current site in 1988, taking up the second and third floors. In 2001, it took the fourth, too.

Like a senior group home, this community home is a cluster of rental flats meant to let the elderly with little or no family support age in place, in an environment which they are familiar with. AWWA's is running at full capacity - with 140 residents living in 52 flats, and about seven referrals a month.

But at senior group homes, which are clusters of five to eight flats in a block - and where the units are not necessarily next to each other - many units are empty.

The Straits Times reported earlier this month that although the Government planned to have 60 senior group homes by year's end, there are just 14 homes to date. As of March, less than a fifth of the 250 places in the 14 homes were filled.

Senior group homes usually admit Singaporeans who are eligible for HDB rental flats, and are assessed to be too frail to live alone. Sheltered homes like AWWA's cater to more ambulant, independent seniors.

This way, it is also easier for residents to look after their flatmates or neighbours, said AWWA chief executive Tim Oei. Having a large number of residents is vital for the AWWA home to build a community and run effectively with economies of scale, he told The Sunday Times. "When the flats in senior group homes are dispersed, it is hard to bring people together."

The AWWA home has a team of social workers and care staff. It also has nurses on duty 24/7, unlike most senior group homes, where staff members are on call only during office hours. On the first floor of the Ang Mo Kio block, there is a seniors activity centre and a daycare centre for the elderly with dementia, both run by AWWA. Seniors can use the two centres' services, whether they live in the community home or not.

While there are social activities, and food is provided, they are not obliged to take part in the activities and can have their meals elsewhere.

Retired tutor Ruby Seah, 66, took some time to get used to living in the AWWA home when she moved in two years ago, after her mother died. She has five siblings, but they are not close and she did not want to be a burden to them. She said: "Initially, I was sad about coming here. When I queued up for food, I felt ashamed. But now, I understand that there's no need to be ashamed."

She takes part in social activities such as karaoke sessions. She also goes to libraries in Bishan and Bras Basah, and buys food for other residents. "I like this home. It's better to have a shelter than to have nowhere to go, and this is better than a nursing home. I have the freedom to go in and out," she said.

Meanwhile, Mr Oei said running the home is not without challenges.

Sometimes, residents do not get along, usually due to misunderstandings, and counselling is offered. The main challenge, he said, is having to transfer seniors to nursing homes when they get too frail.

"Clinically, that's the best option for them. But we treat them like family, so sometimes it's difficult for us when we have to move them out. Building a community means we don't let people down when they need us the most, but we also have to ensure they get the medical help they need."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 26, 2016, with the headline 'Seniors live here as one community'. Print Edition | Subscribe