About a week ago, I responded to a Facebook post by someone who was flying off at the airport. He lamented about how the sad it was that the toilet cleaners at the Singapore airport are elderlies who are obviously way past retirement age. While happy that they are able to find employment, he wonders what it shows about our society and presumably it shows how we treat our old people.
What surprised me, well it didn’t actually because I knew that it is such an evocative issue, was the number of likes (73 to be exact) and 20 odd comments posted in response ranging from those who sympathized with the old folks and felt that it was shameful for a society to have them working like this to those who said that old folks should work lest they lose their mental capacities and alertness.
There is this old lady, probably around 70, bent over with osteoporosis walking around in excruciatingly slow motion collecting garbage and rubbish we throw into the wastepaper baskets and bins around. Let’s call her L Jie*. We make it a point to say good morning to L Jie every morning. I used to buy her little bite-size finger foods but somehow stopped the practice, not sure why…maybe I should start doing it again.
Then there are the old men, white haired and in their 60 or maybe even 70s. They do the maintenance work which involves hammering and repairing work. It often entails carrying heavy things albeit with a trolley but then loading heavy stuff onto trolleys may still be a challenge.
I do not know why they are still working. Possibly it’s because they want to. The management would most likely feel that they are doing them a favour by giving them these jobs.
I had the opportunity to chat with L Jie. She is a proud lady who has grown up children and grandchildren who most likely can support her. I’ve never really asked her why she is still working because I fear being rude, which is the last thing I want to do to an old lady whom I respect so much. But in spite of the possibility that she wants to work, it still pains me every time I see her bent-double as she slowly struggles along the corridors collecting our rubbish. I have no solutions and offer none but nothing can abate the guilt of not being able to do more except to be kinder to her and folks like her.
I have the wonderful privilege of knowing some elderly people from the States.
One of them, a female missionary, in her late sixties when I got to know her. She had retired from her teaching position in Indiana some years ago. Her church had sent her as a missionary to Taiwan. She became a good friend and I spent my evenings in her home which was always open to me, another expat in a land away from home. She was a divorcee and had a single daughter and a married son who were both not living with her when she was at home in the States. She had finished paying for her home and was comfortably living on social security. On top of it, the church was financially supporting her missionary work in Taiwan.
I would like to retire like her. She was working because she wanted to, doing what she wanted to, servicing God in the way she wanted to and enjoying her retirement in the way she wanted to. I emphasized “wanted to” because to me there is something sadder than growing old and that is growing old and being forced by financial circumstances to do what you don’t want to do.
I met another elderly lady in the states when I was there on holiday. This widow in her eighties is the mother of my friends who had migrated to Los Angeles from Taiwan and mainland China many years ago. I respect her a lot because as a widow she managed to get her children out of China during the Cultural Revolution and helped them settle in California. Her determination might possibly have come from her guilt of having left some of her children in China when she retreated with her soldier husband to Taiwan in the ‘60s. Now the old lady spends her twilight years in a retirement home; her main occupation each day was to read the bible and pray, something she has done for years because of her devout gratitude to her God who has seen her through the most difficult times. She didn’t choose to work; she didn’t need to. She chose to spend time as a ‘hand maiden’ of her God as she calls herself, worshipping and praising him all her remaining days.
What impressed me was the state of the retirement home. It looked even better than my own home in Singapore. It was on landed property with well-manicured gardens with trees and shrubs, and sturdy outdoor benches and chairs in the shade where the elderly could sit and enjoy a cool evening. The home had doctors and nurses and all kinds of professionals on duty 24-7. The inside though not fancy was clean and cheerful. There were common lounges for the elderly occupants to mingle. My elderly friend lived in a small unit that had a bedroom with a bathroom/toilet attached and a living/dining room. There was a small kitchenette, not for heavy cooking but for preparing simple food. The unit came with a fridge and a TV. The most important thing was that it was clean and smelt good, most likely thanks to the daily cleaners.
Well, maybe L Jie and the old men at my workplace aren’t as highly educated as the missionary lady and they certainly didn’t educate the next generation the way she did. And maybe L Jie and the old men didn’t quite fight in a war and got their children out of a communist country through sheer grit and determination. But they certainly have contributed in their own way to our nation building and deserve as good a retirement as the two American ladies.
There are many things we have sneered at America for. We think of them as liberal and decadent and are constantly reminded that we are a conservative society so we are morally superior to them. We are told that we cannot afford to go on welfare because we will suffer as a result. I do not want to touch on these sensitive issues; let’s save them for another day. But my experience in the States has painted a different picture of the American society: I see a society that cares for its people – not because they are contributing economically right now but because they are American citizens. That to me is the mark of a great caring nation.
…we should work because we want to
and not because we have to.
My final comment on Facebook in response to the many comments that were posted on the aged in Singapore was that in retirement, we should work because we want to and not because we have to.
A society that has old people working because they have to, especially in backbreaking work cannot claim to be first world. If survival of the aged is reduced to this, then all our talk about respect for our pioneer generation is just lip service. Can we do more for our aged? If not, we are indeed in danger of becoming a heartless society.
*Jie – (姐) Elder Sister – used in this way, it doesn’t necessarily refer to an elder female sibling but a term of respect for someone older.