Old and home alone in Singapore

Number of seniors aged 65 and above who live by themselves has tripled since 2000

Longevity is bittersweet for Madam Ng Poh Choo.

At 83, Madam Ng, who used to serve drinks at a coffee shop, has outlived three older brothers who died of cancer or old age.

The single woman has been living alone in a one-room rental flat in Bukit Merah for the last 13 years.

"I do get lonely and I can't remember my friends' numbers to call, so I don't have a choice," she said.

Social workers found her lonely and depressed three years ago and referred her to an eldercare centre nearby for activities.

Madam Ng is among a rapidly growing group of elderly folk here who live alone. The number of old people aged 65 and above who live by themselves has nearly tripled over the last 15 years to 42,100 last year, up from 14,500 in 2000.

The elderly make up about a third of all one-person households here.

Sociologists interviewed said such solo elderly households are more prevalent now due to factors such as an ageing population and changing family structures resulting from a low birth rate, rising divorce rate and estranged familial relations. Others simply desire more personal space and independence.

"Singapore is ageing rapidly and while our 12 per cent rate of one-person households is quite a bit lower than in Japan, Korea or Taiwan where they are between 20 and 35 per cent, the rate will rise very rapidly in the next few decades," said Professor Jean Yeung, director of the Centre for Family and Population Research at the National University of Singapore.

"Current infrastructure and resources are clearly not adequate to meet the demand."

Whether some senior citizens live alone as a result of forced circumstances or choice, some studies suggest that they are more likely to fall ill or die before their time.

A local study published in June this year explored the relationship between loneliness, social isolation and mortality risk and found that loneliness is associated with a higher mortality risk among the elderly in Singapore.

Between 2007 and 2011, at least 50 elderly people have been found dead in their homes.

Yet, the study's authors were also quick to point out that in a densely populated city-state like Singapore, where the healthcare system is good and children often live close by, living alone does not imply social disconnection or lack of support from children.

The issue of the rising number of isolated seniors was flagged back in 2012 by Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob, then Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports.

She said then that the reach of Senior Activity Centres, which provide recreational and social activities for the elderly, needs to be widened as they are located at the void decks of selected one- and two-room rental blocks. They now also cater to those not living in rental flats.

Ms Peh Kim Choo, director of Hua Mei Centre for Successful Ageing at Tsao Foundation, said this trend of seniors living alone has implications for the national vision of the old being able to age comfortably at home in the community.

"Will they be able to access help and support easily when a crisis happens at home, or will they be shipped off to a nursing home the minute conditions arise?" she asked.

"The existing gaps are not so much a lack of services but how these services are coordinated and working in tandem with healthcare and psychological care services."

Last year, The Straits Times broke the news about a new eldercare system aimed at better supporting vulnerable old people.

Under this, Singapore would be divided into zones with each one overseen by a cluster operator. The idea is that having a single operator overseeing community services in each zone will entail better coordination and less wastage of manpower.

Touch Community Services was appointed by the Ministry of Social and Family Development to monitor seniors in the Kallang/Novena and Yishun/Sembawang regions.

"Social workers help to monitor, provide suppport services and work closely with hospitals to ensure smooth transition of care services when (elderly folk) are discharged," said Ms Julia Lee, director of Touch Senior Cluster Network.

When asked, the Ministry of Social and Family Development said the cluster operator model is relatively new but hopes it will "reap benefits through improving and streamlining referral processes across services, improving service coordination for seniors, and minimising duplication in services".

As for Madam Ng, she once had suicidal thoughts, but is more active and happier now. She said: "When I take part in activities like singing songs at the eldercare centre, my thoughts do not go wild."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2015, with the headline Old and home alone in Singapore. Subscribe