Old and home alone: 'I can take care of myself'

SINGAPORE - There is a stench in the slightly cluttered one-room rental flat of Mr Neo Chuan Beng, 62.

The wheelchair-bound man had kept us outside the flat for 5 minutes, hollering in Hokkien from the flat that he had to do his business.

As soon as we entered the flat last Thursday, Mr Neo turned on a small, old fan - and the smell disappeared after a while.

Mr Neo is unable to use the toilet, relying on diapers and a portable toilet, which he wraps with plastic bags to be disposed.

He is unable to take a bath on his own and pays $4.20 each time for a cleaning up service twice a week.

Mr Neo, who moves around in an electric wheelchair, he has been living in the same flat at Beach Road for more than 40 years. He has been living alone for 26 years after his mother died.

He is one of 800 elderly residents under the watchful care of Peace Connect, a voluntary organisation located near his flat.

The plight of seniors who live alone came under the spotlight after an 82-year-man who was living alone had his arm stuck in a pipe for more than 12 hours before he was discovered by his son.

But Mr Neo, who lost the use of his legs about 10 years ago, told The New Paper that he prefers to live alone.

"If I live with someone else, there might be conflict.

It's very hard to say what they will do to you.

They could kick you or even kill you.

"I will just be extra careful since I'm alone. I keep all my things within reach so that I wouldn't need help from others," he said in Hokkien.

The youngest in a family of four children, Mr Neo keeps in touch only occasionally with a brother.


Formerly working as a runner at a coffee shop, he is under the Public Assistance Scheme and gets $450 a month.

Every Wednesday and Friday, someone helps him bathe and clean up his flat.

If he pays $8.40 for each session, the organisation will send two people, which makes the cleaning process faster. But it's too expensive, he said.

"Money is tight. I have to think about my meals during the weekends and public holidays."

On weekdays, he pays 50 cents for his meals at Peace Connect, where he also spends his time, chatting with residents.

When he's at home, most of the time is spent on a single bed, which is propped against the wall and surrounded by his necessities.

Occasionally, Mr Neo watches TV on a small set.

Nimbly navigating around the tiny kitchen in the motorised wheelchair, he does simple chores such as boiling water.

The fiercely independent Mr Neo insists that he can take care of himself.

He has people to call if he needs help, although he admits that one of his neighbours is deaf and some units near his flat are empty.

When asked repeatedly if he's worried if something could happen to him when he's home alone, he finally conceded with a laugh that he gets afraid when he hears about people dying alone in their flats.

Despite being surrounded by other seniors at Peace Connect, Mr Neo finds it hard to rely on them. "I can talk to you, and you are considered my friend for the day. But this does not mean we are close."

"Ultimately, I'll have to depend on myself," he said.

More than half live alone

An estimated 50 to 60 per cent of senior citizens live alone in the one-room rental flats at Beach Road and North Bridge Road, said Mrs Lucy Tan, centre manager of voluntary organisation Peace Connect.

She explained that although the HDB's rules require two people to register for a rental flat, some still live alone because of different circumstances.

For instance, a co-tenant might have died or is in a nursing home.

Other times, the co-tenant could work long hours, or the flatmates may be caught in a conflict and choose to stay away.

About 800 seniors are registered with Peace Connect, which operates from the ground level of Block 8, North Bridge Road.

Meals and Mail

The organisation provides an array of services, ranging from mail reading to a meal programme.

But there are still around 400 to 500 seniors living within the radar of the centre who choose not to join for various reasons.

For those who live alone, neighbours are the "best bet", said Mrs Tan, who has over two decades of experience volunteering in the area.

The centre is also in charge of the alert alarm system, which is fitted in the homes of more than 600 residents, to be used in case of an emergency.

"We can visit them often but it's difficult to pre-empt (an emergency).

Life is so fragile," she said.

Often, the challenge they face when it comes to helping the elderly is to "break through their barriers of self-reliance".

She said: "Many of them belong to a generation which have survived on their own for a long time.

"They have their pride and will say 'we are poor but we are not beggars'."

This article was first published on June 16, 2014.
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