Help is just a tug of cord away

When Madam Mary Tan, 79, felt dizzy and had chest pains last month, she pulled an emergency cord in her one-room flat.

Within minutes, Ms Khaing Khaing Nyunt, 35, a trained nurse from Myanmar, was by her side.

"If you are old and live alone, you can panic when you feel unwell," says the housewife, who has been living on her own since her husband died seven years ago. "I am lucky that I can get medically trained nurses at my bedside should I need them."

She is fortunate to live in an Ang Mo Kio housing block fitted with a medical emergency response system that can be attended to 24/7.

As part of a programme started in the early 1990s, around 15,800 Housing Board rental flats and 6,800 studio apartments for the elderly have been equipped with these alert-alarm systems. However, the vast majority get help only during office hours.

Madam Tan's block is special because it happens to house a community home for seniors who have no family support.

Run by the Asian Women's Welfare Association (AWWA), a voluntary welfare group, the home has a nursing team on-site round the clock.

"We realised that having an emergency system that worked only during office hours wasn't of much use," says AWWA chief executive Tim Oei.

"People often need help when neighbours are asleep. Since we had nurses on-site, we decided to extend the round-the-clock monitoring facility to the entire block."

As is the practice islandwide, during office hours, emergency calls at Madam Tan's block are answered by staff of the local senior activity centre, which is also run by AWWA. At night and on public holidays, the community home nurses are in charge.

Islandwide, senior activity centres responded to an average of 25 alerts per rental block a month last year. The majority - more than nine in 10 - were "non-emergency" calls, an HDB spokesman said.

These calls are monitored by the centres during office hours, but most centres have taught residents to attend to distress calls when the local centre is closed.

Efforts are now on to twin the alarm technology with care services.

As part of a pilot scheme started late last year, some of these same rental blocks now enjoy the services of community nurses and home-help aides. They can deal with patient emergencies during office hours, and also take care of the personal needs of those who are very old and have no caregivers.

Apart from Ang Mo Kio, the programme is also in place in Kreta Ayer-Kim Seng.

Temasek Cares, a non-profit initiative under Temasek Holdings, has given $1.38 million over three years to fund the project, which is expected to benefit nearly 1,000 seniors.

In Kreta Ayer, the scheme is managed by the Kreta Ayer Senior Activity Centre. Since October last year, community nurse Helen Alburque'V - who speaks Malay, Hokkien, Cantonese and Mandarin - has been traversing the corridors of rental blocks in Chin Swee Road and Banda Street to tend to people too old or ill to look after themselves.

Among them is retired magician Lee Kok Siang, 93, who has a host of medical problems. Ms Alburque'V found him while knocking on doors to see who needed help.

On Dec 1, at around 7am, Mr Lee fell and bruised his cheek. He then pulled the emergency cord. Although neighbours had been trained to help outside office hours, no one came to his aid until Ms Alburque'V and staff from the centre arrived. They rushed to his flat right after they got to work at around 9.30am.

"He was hurt, but did not want to go to the hospital initially," Ms Alburque'V says. "We were able to convince him to go."

The father of two had suffered two falls before. So while he was away in hospital, Ms Alburque'V and her team rearranged his furniture with his permission. Furniture, boxes and bags had blocked the way from his bed to the toilet. "We cleared a path for him."

After he returned home, Ms Alburque'V visited him every day to help him shower, eat and do his exercises. Now that he has improved physically, she drops in once a week. "He is definitely in better spirits."

When The Sunday Times visited his flat, Mr Lee was obviously enjoying the company and care of the cheerful nursing team. He pointed out that he was older than the late former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

"At my age, I need help. And they help me," he says with a small smile.

This article was first published on Apr 26, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.