In Short

'I rented out my own flat to move in here so I would have flat-mates'

Together at the four-room assisted living unit in Ang Mo Kio: (from left) Caregiver Khin Mar Htwe, 35; Madam Ng Swee Lieng, 93; Madam Lee Yoke Sim, 84; caregiver Naw Mar Mar Aye, 33; and Madam Yip Fong Lin, 75. PHOTO: JOSHUA GOH

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The sun streamed in through the open window of the flat that looked out onto Bishan Park. The hum of traffic is audible, but in the flat, the women are all smiles.

Madam Ng Swee Lieng held onto my hand and did not want to let go. I had asked how long she had been "living here", referring to the four-room flat in Ang Mo Kio. She thought I meant to ask how long she had been in Singapore. She said in Mandarin: "I was born in Malacca, and I came to Singapore..."

I wished I had the whole day to listen to her stories.

But I was a journalist with a deadline, on a short tour of Red Crowns Senior Living flats that founder Joshua Goh, 42, had retrofitted into assisted living units, complete with grab bars, ramps to the bathrooms.

I had to cut her short and asked: "I mean, how long have you lived in this flat?"

Madam Ng, 93, told me how she was living with her daughter, son-in-law and grandson in Woodlands, but was often alone in the flat when they were out at work or school. She moved into the shared flat in January.

In her new home, there is always someone around - four residents live there, with two caregivers. Ms Naw Mar Mar Aye, 33, has been in Singapore for four years; and Ms Khin Mar Htwe, 35, has worked here for nine years. Both are experienced in housekeeping and caring for the elderly. They are also confident in getting around Singapore independently and entrusted with doing the grocery shopping (sometimes with the residents coming along), cooking meals, or escorting the residents to do their hair, or on medical appointments. On weekends or evenings, family members drop by, often with food for their loved ones, which is usually shared with all the others. There is always some activity.

A similar desire for companionship motivated Madam Yip Fong Lin, 75, to rent out her flat in Sembawang, where she was living alone after her husband died two years ago. The mother of four daughters and a son, started to feel isolated. She took up her children's suggestion to move into the Red Crowns group home where fees are about $2,200 per person for a twin-bedded room, meals, utilities, laundry and caregiving services. "The important thing is that over here, I get flat-mates and there are people around," she said.

During my visit, I was struck by how cheerful the residents and caregivers were, and also how home-like the flat was, and how there was nothing institutional about it. "When we moved in, we brought our own items, clothes, and bed sheets," said Madam Yip, beaming.

Mr Goh sees Red Crowns as offering "co-living for seniors". The serial entrepreneur is an architect by training with experience operating backpacker hotels and co-living projects for millennials. His first elderly co-living "client" was his father, who suffered a few falls and was getting frailer. Not finding any care options suitable, he decided to help his father find fellow elderly flatmates to share caregiving costs with. Today, his father lives with two others in a three-bedroom HDB flat and they hire two caregivers who cook, clean and help them with daily activities.

He realised this care model could work in Singapore and started Red Crowns.

Without much publicity, the start-up now has about 130 residents in 25 apartments, including HDB flats. The company is looking for "property partners" who want to lease out their vacant homes; and also for elderly people to live in the co-living flats and share caregiving costs.

Red Crowns is the "concierge manager" who handles the property maintenance, and manages the caregiving staff, who are foreign domestic workers. Mr Goh is running Red Crowns as a social enterprise, and thinks the model can work to alleviate social isolation and help older folks age in place so they don't need to turn to nursing homes when they don't need that level of care.

Assisted living options like these, that offer round-the-clock caregiving services to residential homes, are being pioneered by private sector operators in Singapore. Apart from Red Crowns, there is the St Bernadette Lifestyle Village group, which runs three assisted living homes in landed properties.

At the government level, the Housing Board last year launched the first Community Care Apartments in Bukit Batok, offering flats on short-term leases that come with caregiving packages. The first cluster of about 160 units will be ready by 2024.

As Singapore's population ages rapidly, there is a need to develop more eldercare housing options that go beyond the traditional labour-intensive, medicalised, and rather institutionalised, nursing homes.

Many Singaporeans have expressed a wish to retire with caregiving support in their own homes, or in HDB surroundings. Assisted living units in HDB flats could be the answer to many Singaporeans' dreams of secure, sustainable retirement housing.


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