She's 107 and independent

She is more than twice as old as modern Singapore.

Madam Lim Beak is 107 - but if you asked her, she would say: "I'm 108, if you go according to my Chinese age."

Unlike many other centenarians, the widow lives alone in her one-room flat in Ang Mo Kio and is proud of it. "I treasure my independence," Madam Lim told The New Paper.

It's not that the soft-spoken Madam Lim has no family - she has 10 children and over 40 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

"I don't want to burden them. They are all grown up and have their own lives," she proudly said in Hokkien.

Granddaughter Toh Lay Hong, 46, said the number of Madam Lim's descendants are only those from her five sons, two of whom had died. The families of her five daughters have not been accounted for.

"My aunts' families are all over Malaysia. One's in China and one was given up for adoption. We lost touch with them," she said.

Standing at about 1.52m, Madam Lim collected newspapers for pocket money but stopped in January after she was weakened by a serious bout of flu. Slower in her steps, she now needs a walking stick to steady her gait.

"I went out to collect newspapers to sell because I got bored sitting alone at home. At least the $20 to $30 a month from that gave me a little more pocket money," she said.

Her utilities of $46 a month are paid for by a grandson.

Madam Lim still keeps herself active by taking care of daily chores in her one-room flat in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4, cooking porridge for her lunch and dinner, and venturing downstairs to the Thye Hua Kwan Senior Activities Centre for exercise and companionship.

She even attended the appreciation night for Pioneer Generation Ambassadors at Gardens by the Bay last month, where she was photographed with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife Ho Ching.

"The grassroots leaders were kind enough to pick me up from my home, put me in a wheelchair and take me to the party. They even accompanied me back to my doorstep after the event," said Madam Lim.

Ms Toh, who is in the construction business, said her uncles take turns to visit her grandmother every other day, bringing her food and daily necessities.

Other than the occasional aches and pain, Madam Lim does not have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, much to the amazement of senior staff nurse Neo Yu Shan, who is part of Tan Tock Seng Hospital's Post Acute Care At Home team.

She visited Madam Lim twice after her recent bout of flu to check on her.

HEALTHY

Madam Lim is one of the 1,053 centenarians in Singapore but unlike most of them, she still has her physical and mental health.

Born in 1908, Madam Lim left Fujian in China to join her husband in Singapore when she was 34. Her husband had fled China in 1939 to avoid conscription.

After arriving in Singapore, Madam Lim worked on her husband's farm in Jalan Ulu Sembawang until she was in her 70s.

"It was at the 13th mile of Ulu Sembawang. We called it 'jia zui gang' (Hokkien for freshwater harbour). We grew vegetables such as bittergourd, tapioca and brinjal," she said.

The family managed to save enough to buy pigs and started rearing them until the Government phased out pig farming across Singapore. They then moved into their HDB flat in Yishun.

Madam Lim said when her husband died in 2001, she moved in with her second son's family.

She moved to her current flat only after her second son and daughter-in-law died in 2005.

Khoo Teck Puat Hospital's Department of Geriatrics senior consultant Wong Sweet Fun said living to a very old age with a good quality of life is uncommon because of the physical, mental and social challenges.

"Chronic diseases, disability, incontinence, dementia and falls become increasingly common with old age and can make it difficult for the very elderly to lead independent lives," she said.

"Helping them keep to their routines and do things that bring them pleasure, such as going for daily walks in the neighbourhood, greatly improve the quality of life of the very elderly but they require the commitment and support of family members."

RSVP Singapore's executive director Edmund Song, 61, said: "We have seen an emerging trend among seniors choosing active lifestyles.

"They have close family and community ties but are not overly reliant on them."

A non-profit organisation of senior volunteers, RSVP Singapore was launched by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1998.

Agreeing, Council for Third Age's former chairman Gerard Ee said: "It is the senior citizen's own commitment and accountability to himself or herself.

"There are the ecosystem and facilities in place in Singapore but if the individual doesn't choose to live healthily or believe in himself, then it is not going to work.

"It would be interesting to know how Madam Lim keeps herself hale and hearty to live to such a ripe old age."

More than 1,000 people here older than 100

Singaporeans are living longer and the country has one of the fastest ageing populations in the world.

Its once exclusive centenarian club has seen its membership increase dramatically over the past 20 years.

In 1990, there were just 71 Singaporeans and permanent residents who were 100 or older.

Last year, the number rose to 1,053, according to data from the Department of Statistics.

The World Health Organisation has ranked Singapore as having the world’s second-longest life expectancy, behind Japan which has a life expectancy of 84 years.

Singapore is tied in second spot with Andorra, Australia, Switzerland, Italy and San Marino, with overall life expectancy of 83 years.

LONGER LIFE

Dr Tew Chee Wee, associate consultant with Department of Geriatrics at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, said life expectancies have increased because of medical advancements, improved housing and living standards, and better nutrition.

“Data on life expectancies between 1840 and 2007 show a steady increase averaging about three months of life per year.

“There is little evidence that life expectancy has stopped rising, even in Japan, and the question of the potential length of the human life span remains unanswered,” he said.

Among centenarians, women outnumber men two to one. Dr Tew said this could be because of “female hormonal profile and the possibility of genetic advantages”.

“But recent population trends have shown the gap narrowing,” he said.

“Changing behavioural norms and roles between the genders may well tip the balance over the years, such as changes in tobacco and alcohol use, risk-taking behaviours, changes in roles and occupational choices.”

juditht@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Aug 11, 2015.
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