Singapore’s Elderly Loneliness Epidemic

Mr Hoong Hing Weng has been living alone for the past few decades.
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By Kayla Toh

Mr Hoong Hing Weng’s soft eyes gazed at a group of young children playing in the distance. “I love kids,” he said with a smile.

Wearing a plain white T-shirt and brown shorts, Mr Hoong, 82, has been living in Chinatown most of his life – alone.

He has no children. He divorced his wife in 1973, after a 10-year marriage. He was chagrined when his wife aborted their unborn child without his consent. “I was very angry as I love kids and I felt it was immoral to kill an unborn baby,” said Mr Hoong.

Like Mr Hoong, the number of seniors (aged 65 and above) living alone has tripled – from 14,500 in 2000 to 42,100 in 2014. This number is expected to double to 83,000 by 2030, according to the Ministry for Community Development, Youth and Sports

The increasing prevalence of solo elderly households is due to a plethora of factors: Singapore’s ageing population, small family structures as a result of the low birth rate, divorce, or the breakdown of family relationships. In addition, some seniors simply prefer the greater freedom and independence from living alone.

Like most of the elderly in Chinatown, Mr Hoong spends the twilight of his life going for walks, sleeping, and chatting with people in the neighbourhood.

Mr Hoong previously worked as a crane operator and driver until his retirement in his 60s.

Today, he barely survives on a monthly income of $450 from the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s (MSF) Public Assistance (PA) Scheme.

He recalled, “Some time ago, I underwent surgery to remove a tumour and the operation cost $13,000. I didn’t have the money and I cried. They consoled me and brought me to the related government agency to apply for help and assistance.”

To make ends meet, Mr Hoong has been operating a shoe-repair stall in Chinatown for the past three years.
“I earned $3 yesterday. Today, I earned $4. There are few customers,” he said. “If I didn’t receive the help from the MSF, I wouldn’t even have the money to spend on food. I used to receive around $200 from the Public Assistance (PA) Scheme, and now the amount has gradually increased to $450.”

Fortunately for Mr Hoong, his medical fees are well taken care of. “I am going for an eye surgery on April 15, and all my medical fees are covered by public assistance,” he said.

According to a 2008 research article by Yang-Sheng Wong and Lois Verbrugge titled ‘Living Alone: Elderly Chinese Singaporeans’, nine of the 19 interviewees (47%) were covered under the PA scheme. Of the nine, three said their CPF savings had been used up by medical bills. They had thus turned to the PA scheme, receiving a minimal monthly regular sum but full healthcare coverage.

The study also showed that a large proportion of the elderly were accustomed to living alone, and preferred to be alone. They did not want to be bothered by others or be accountable to others. These elderly were also more vulnerable to social isolation, and their sole interaction with the outside world was via medical and social services.

All the 19 interviewees reported feeling lonely or depressed, and many said they live by the day and endeavour not to think of the future.

This is the case with Mr Hoong, who also says he lives by the day. He usually buys lunch outside and brings it home to eat at around 5pm. At home, he likes to watch television. He has no plans for the future. “Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow. Maybe I might die while sleeping here one day,” he said matter-of-factly.

Mr Hoong doesn’t keep in touch with his relatives, and he has few friends. “They ignore me as they are rich and I am poor. All of my dad’s savings were taken away by my eldest sister,” he said. “I don’t have many friends. Those friends cannot be trusted; they borrowed my money and never returned it.”

“I don’t feel lonely although I have been living alone for a few decades. I feel so carefree living alone as nobody is bothering me,” Mr Hoong added nonchalantly. “I don’t like to participate in any elderly activities. I don’t have the money.”

The Wong and Verbrugge article also stated that elderly isolation is aggravated by several factors, including their inability to cope with a rapidly changing Singapore, lack of education like the inability to speak English or illiteracy, and lack of elevator facilities at their HDB apartments which deters them from going out.

Loneliness and the Link to High Mortality Risk

Many studies have found that loneliness can have serious effects on one’s health. According to the Singapore Longitudinal Ageing Studies headed by the National University of Singapore (NUS), seniors in Singapore who live alone are 1.7 times more likely to die prematurely than seniors living with others.

The death rate for men living alone was 2.8 times higher than that for men living with others. In a similar trend, the death rate for women living alone was 1.2 times higher than for women living with others.

According to the study, this phenomenon may be caused by the death of a spouse or a lack of care and support for seniors living alone.

Even the elderly living with family members are highly vulnerable to loneliness. In a Duke-NUS study led by Associate Professor Angelique Chan, 33% of the 5,000 elderly (aged 60 and above) interviewed revealed that they are sometimes lonely. 19%, or about one in five, said that they are often lonely.

To make ends meet, Mr Hoong has been operating a shoe repair stall in Chinatown for the past three years.

Contributing factors include the loss of one’s spouse and friends, retirement from one’s job, disability or illness, weak family ties, or little communication between the elderly and family members. Elderly suicides have seen a nearly 60% surge since 2000.

The number of elderly suicides was 126 in 2014, compared to 95 in 2000. Common triggers for elderly suicides include social isolation and ill mental health such as loneliness and depression. Another factor is physical health, whereby ill elderly parents take their lives to avoid being a “burden” to their children.

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