Sunday, August 9, 2020

A DAILY STRUGGLE FOR THE CITY'S DESTITUTE ELDERLY


Hard times are here, and they get harder by the day. Jobs are scarce and money is even scarcer. For the elderly with no family and no financial support, it is a daily struggle to stay alive. Some have lost their contract jobs due to months of business shutdown. They are desperate to look for any kind of work but who would want to hire a senior citizen even if he was fit and capable?


Since 10 June when restrictions on movement were lifted under the RMCO, I have been spending time with the homeless and destitute elderly in downtown areas like Pasar Seni, Bukit Bintang-Imbi, and Pudu. Their numbers are increasing each day and the queues for handouts keep getting longer.

Is it possible for an elderly to live without a roof over their heads and without a dime in their pockets? Yes, and this is how they do it. Not that they want to, but many have no choice due to various circumstances beyond their control. For some, their plight is of their own making.

Some have families but shame stops them from returning to their homes. Others choose the streets over welfare shelters as they want to retain their freedom and independence.


The street elderly are mostly men. It is not safe for women to be out on the streets at night. So they share rooms in the nearby budget hotels and shophouses. With their meagre savings fast dwindling, they are aware they may have to move into welfare homes soon. Some have family homes to return to but they prefer to stay out the whole day returning just to sleep. They do not want to be an additional burden to their adult children who have their own financial commitments to take care of.


Take a walk in the downtown inner city areas any time of day. You will see the homeless sleeping at bus-stops or on cardboard pieces spread out along the five-foot ways of shuttered shops. Some have set up home under flyovers or overhead bridges. Some beg for alms, others search the trash bins for recyclables they can sell for a pittance.


Those who have been on the streets long enough know where to go for free breakfast, lunch and dinner. On weekdays Kechara Soup Kitchen (KSK) gives out vegetarian meals and bottles of drinking water. Samaritans like Ee Lynn and her friends have pooled their money to provide 100 food packages for their weekly food distribution downtown. There are other groups providing sustenance too. Food is not so much a problem as money.

Inset: vegetarian rice with taufu. Food donated by Ee Lynn and friends.
The hungry are grateful for these free meals and handouts which often include face masks, medicated oil and panadol. They eat sitting on the pavement, next to piles of stinky uncleared garbage with flies hovering around. At night the mosquitoes take over.


While some have marked out their territorial space along the pavements with their belongings, others are more itinerant, dragging their trolley bag of clothes and essentials from place to place. There is safety in numbers so it is common to find them congregating in groups. The solitary homeless elderly is rare.

Taking daily baths is a luxury. They wash their clothes with pails of water sourced from restaurants nearby, and leave their laundry to dry on bushes or makeshift lines. The street corners and back lanes are their urinals. Hence the overwhelming stench of pee that assails the nostrils.


Many community kitchens and NGOs providing free meals before Covid-19 have remained closed. When I heard that Kechara Soup Kitchen (KSK) was open for food takeaway, I dropped by on 15 July with my daughter Belle and my grandson to see how we could help. Ryder, 6, was so touched by what he saw that when he went home, he took out some money from his piggy bank and returned a few days later to give his 'ang-pow' to a 78-year old aunty who collects recyclables to sell. She earns less than Rm3 a day.



I had kept in touch with Justin Cheah, KSK program director, since my first Saturday night food distribution with KSK in 2010. I had written about it in my blog article (The kitchen that feeds all who come). Our chat that morning led to one thing and another, and concluded with SeniorsAloud stepping in to sponsor 436 food packages for the upcoming Saturday night food distribution.

Photo credit: Vivian/KSK
On Saturday, 1 August, a total of 41 volunteers, including myself, Belle and her friends Marie-Anne and Michelle, turned up at KSK at 8.30pm for a briefing before setting out with the boxes of food. The packing had been done earlier that afternoon at 3pm. Each food package consisted of vegetarian rice, sandwich, biscuits, banana and drinking water.


We were divided into groups, each with a group leader. There were seven areas in total: Pudu Market, Chow Kit, Anjung Singgah, Sentul, Brickfields, Petaling Street and Dang Wangi. These were areas where we would find homeless elderly. Our group led by Justin was given Pudu Market. All very well organised, I must say.


The night scene was quite different from the daytime one. The elderly we met seemed tougher and more acclimatised to rugged living. Some were happy to chat and share their stories, others were more reticent. Some were asleep so we quietly left the food beside them. We finished distributing all the packages by midnight.


I have been visiting the elderly downtown several times a week now. I know many of them by name and they are always eager to chat. A sign of boredom? Perhaps. They have nothing to do the whole day.

This is what I have learned about them:
  • The street elderly are very resilient and stoic. They have learned to accept and live with the vagaries of life. 
  • They have developed a strong immune system built over years of tough living on the streets.
  • Some of these street elderly are abandoned by their families. Many are single and have lost touch with their siblings.
  • They have a sense of pride. They want to work and support themselves. They do not want to depend on handouts.

Recommendations:
  • Introduce legislation that supports filial piety, similar to the Maintenance of Parents Act in India, China and Singapore.
  • Set up more old folks homes and welfare shelters for the elderly and ensure they are properly and efficiently managed.
  • Have better coordination of food donation and distribution services to prevent wastage.
  • Establish a skills-based training centre for older people to enable them to be self-supporting.
  • Remove ageism in employment. Older people in their 50s and 60s are still capable of contributing to the economy.
  • Introduce programmes and activities that strengthen family bonding and intergenerational understanding.
  • Promote an active lifestyle so that every citizen will age well. Our health and well-being is our responsibility. Start early. Start young.

(Note: Unless otherwise acknowledged, all photos are the property of SeniorsAloud. Permission is required to use any of the photos featured here.)

Sunday, July 19, 2020

THINKING OUTSIDE THAT WOODEN BOX


We’ve heard it before: 60 is the new 40 and 70 the new 50. Yet, there are many among us senior citizens who view themselves as 60 going on 80, and 70 going on 90. They think old, look old and act old. They have OLD stamped all over their body and mind. No wonder they feel they already have one foot in the grave.

Granted death is a taboo topic in most Asian cultures, but, seriously, we all need a wake-up call sometimes before it’s too late and we are staring Death in the face. Do we want to spend the rest of our lives merely existing instead of living? The fastest way to speed up the ageing process is to think we are old and ready to expire. Sure, we all have to die one day, but that shouldn’t stop us from having fun, adventure, romance and happiness while we can still draw breath. Let's live before we leave.

These young men (my brothers and cousins) enjoying their golden years in 2008. They have retained their youthful looks and joie de vivre 12 years later in 2020.
When we think we are old, we are. Our thoughts are very powerful. They govern how we behave and react. There are folks who, upon reaching retirement age, retire not just from their jobs, but from everything that used to define who they are. They become a pale shadow of their former self, almost unrecognizable by old friends and former colleagues.

The first thing they give up is their physical appearance. In their minds, they are thinking – at my age, nobody gives me a second look, so why spend hard-earned money on unnecessary grooming. Their wardrobe consists mainly of auntie or uncle-type clothes in various funereal shades of black, brown and grey. If comfort is the reason, fine. But if they dress or act to please others, then they are allowing others to dictate how they should dress and behave as befitting their age.

Ladies from the Malaysian Menopause Society turn models for a fashion show in 2008. My first time on the catwalk. It was fun. (I am in black, centre)
Many retirees allow themselves to put on weight and wrinkles by avoiding all manner of physical activity. Their excuse – oh, at my age, I shouldn’t exert myself too much. Over time, they build up a host of health problems like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. They become frail and sickly, and dependent on others.

They give up making an effort to keep in touch with old friends or make new ones. They spend their days mostly at home, moping around the house, and idling away the precious hours. They have no interest in anything that will improve their lives or that of others. Their favourite pastime is complaining about this and that. A close second is dwelling on the past with regret. No wonder they end up lonely, cranky, depressed and bitter. What an awful way to live their retirement years!

It’s easy to identify people who are ageing before their time. They say things like:

I’m too old to travel.
I’m too old to love again.
I’m too old to dance.
I’m too old to learn a new skill.
I’m too old to take up a course of study.
I’m too old to wear bright colours.
I’m too old to venture out on my own.
I’m too old to be outrageous.

It’s time to get rid of the ‘I’m too old to...’ mantra and replace it with a new one that's positive:

I’m still young enough to learn a new language.
I’m still young enough to welcome romance into my life.
I’m still young enough to write a book.
I’m still young enough to do the salsa.
I’m still young enough to go on an adventure trip.

I'm still young enough to....ENJOY LIFE!

We must constantly remind ourselves to make the most of our golden years, not waste them waiting for Death to knock on our doors. It's so easy to fall into the ageing trap.

‘And in the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years.’ – Abraham Lincoln.

(This is an updated version of an article first posted here in August 2008. The original article was picked up by Asian Beacon, a Christian magazine, and published in their June-July 2011 edition.)