She'd rather crawl than get help

Madam Kalsom Abdullah in a wheelchair being pushed by a neighbour, Mr Tan See Bah. Mrs Joyce Ho (right) occasionally helps her with her baths.

She can no longer walk, so she resorts to crawling around her home.

"The last time I could walk was three years ago. I got a minor stroke. Doctors said I have problems with my joints," Madam Kalsom Abdullah says sadly.

Pointing to her legs, the 76-year-old tells us: "Here pain, there pain. Now very hard to move."

Her hands are calloused from dragging herself on the floor over the years and there are large bruises on her knees.

She stuck a plaster on her left knee to cover an abrasion wound.

"Got this while crawling," she says in Malay with a pained expression.

Despite her problems moving around, she insists that she is perfectly fine.

The wiry woman lives alone in a two-room rental flat in Lorong 1 Toa Payoh, which she shared with her husband until he died six years ago.

Madam Kalsom's daily routine includes sweeping the floors and wiping the furniture because she "doesn't want it to look like other places I have seen in the block".

She makes it a point to take medication for her health problems, which include heart disease, diabetes and carpal tunnel syndrome.

On why her four sons and two daughters are not living with her, she says: "My eldest son wants me to stay with him. But I don't want. I like it here.

"They have their own problems and families. Don't need to trouble them."

She does not believe that social services and the neighbourhood's family service centres, which have repeatedly approached her over the years, can help her.

When she does venture out of the flat, it is to attend karaoke sessions and other activities held by Care Corner Family Service Centre at the foot of her block.

Says Madam Kalsom: "I don't care about the karaoke. I go there for the free food. What I need is a person to help me about in the mornings with buying food and moving around. They (social services) can't give that to me."

The programmes they offer are of little use to her, she says. Social workers say her reason for rejecting help is typical of many cases that they handle.

"We have limitations as to what we can do," says principal social worker at Fei Yue Family Service Centre, Ms Petrine Lim, 37.

"Many refuse our help unless a crisis happens.

"Some requests for help are beyond what we can provide. They may want housing right away, or they may want to get jobs but refuse to go for training."

The New Paper on Sunday understands that Madam Kalsom's case has been assessed by social welfare groups but it was her choice to not seek additional help.

She claims to not be on any government assistance schemes but receives subsidies for medical care.

Fixing her legs would require her to fork out $3,000 after subsidies.

"How to pay? So expensive," she laments.

Instead, Madam Kalsom relies on the generosity of her neighbours, many of whom know her as "the old lady who crawls around".

Every morning, she crawls from the bedroom to the front door to wait for her neighbour to buy food.

At 10am, she kneels by the door grill for Mr Ng Ah Nee, 78, to pass by.

"Help me buy food," she asks Mr Ng when he walks past her unit to get to the ninth-floor lift lobby.

An hour later, he returns with plastic bags containing her daily meals and groceries.

She jokingly describes the routine: "It's like waiting for food to fall from the skies."

Says Mr Ng, a retiree, as he points over the corridor railing to a nearby coffee shop: "She likes roast duck rice. Sometimes, I will buy roast chicken rice for her too."

"She doesn't eat pork because of her religion. But otherwise, she's not picky.

One resident, Mrs Joyce Ho, 35, occasionally pops by to help her with her baths.

Says Mrs Ho, who lives at a ground level unit of the block: "I will carry her onto the toilet seat to bathe her. She's not light. It's quite a lot of effort to lift her.

"I do it because it's hard for her to do many things. So my husband and I will help whenever we can."

Another resident, retiree Tan See Bah, 68, says: "I help to push her wheelchair to where she needs to go. There are a lot of old people living here and we need to look after each other."

Her eldest son visits her once every week on the way to work. Each month, her children give her maintenance money of $450 and she gets $200 from her retirement savings.

It is enough to pay for the rent, bills, medicine and daily necessities, she says. "Not cheap at all, but I do get some money from my children."

Despite her insistence that she is well looked after, Madam Kalsom's willingness to chat at length with me suggests that visitors to her home are rare.

The TNPS photographer and I were invited into her home, where she demonstrated how she moves around in the flat by crawling.

She sleeps on a carpet on the bedroom floor instead of the bed right beside it as she has no strength to hoist herself onto it.

In case of an emergency, she has a mobile phone with a special button that, when pressed, will alert the authorities.

"The hardest part is going out of the flat," she says.

Getting onto her wheelchair requires Madam Kalsom to prop herself up against walls and furniture with her hands.

Most residents I spoke to know about her difficulties as she has lived there for nearly a decade.

But there is nothing much social workers can do if she declines offers for assistance.

Says Ms Lim, a social worker of 12 years: "In such cases, we must respect their decision.

"We can still alert the grassroots or neighbours to keep an eye out for the elderly person.

"If the community is active, they would be able to spot when a person has a problem, but it all depends on the strength of the kampung spirit."

This article was first published on October 26, 2014. Get The New Paper for more stories.