Monday, September 11, 2017

Growing old, but no letting go of healthier pursuits

Toh Ee Ming AND
Valerie Koh

September 9, 2017

SINGAPORE — Retiring from her high-powered job as a senior vice-president at Citibank after more than 20 years in the sector, Madam Betty Teo suddenly found herself at standstill.

There was no email to clear, no problem to solve, no report to submit, no performance target to hit, she said. Gone, too, was time spent socialising with colleagues over lunch.

“Every morning, I saw the women in their heels, dressed nicely, taking the train to work, and I started to envy them… I felt (like I had lost) my identity,” the 58-year-old said.

Her husband, a civil servant, still works, so in the first six months of her retirement in 2011, she tried to keep herself engaged by taking up cooking and baking classes, or exercising at community centres, but there was “no real sense of belonging”.

A chance meeting with a member from the Women’s Initiative for Ageing Successfully (Wings) one day led her to sign up for various courses at the non-profit organisation. It was only then that she started to pay heed to the things she used to neglect while working: Eating “mindfully”, learning to build positive relationships, and to enjoy time to herself.

This was very different from the past — when everything was done in a rush, from scarfing down lunches at the office desk to exercising at the gym, and when all she had were “work goals”, never personal ones. It was “just work and family”, with barely enough time for rest, let alone pursue hobbies, she said.

“I had many achievements in my career, but there was no meaning.”

For Madam Teo and scores of Singaporeans who will be part of the country’s fast-greying population, ageing well is something to which they need to pay greater attention.

During his National Day Rally speech last month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted that Singaporeans live up to 82 years on average, but spend eight years of their old age living in ill health.

Doctors said that the duration is noteworthy, and more could be done to reduce it. For a start, they urged seniors against being complacent about being in good health. Regular health screenings and consultations with doctors are a must, they said. This should be accompanied by a regular dose of exercise for the mind and body, as well as a balanced diet.

Dr Tan Sai Tiang, assistant director of Hua Mei Clinic (an elder-friendly clinic) at Tsao Foundation, a non-profit organisation, said that the long-held perception that it is “normal” to be tired and to fall in old age needs to be dispelled.

Having a healthy diet, being socially connected, and keeping physically and mentally active may seem like a tall order, but some retirees show that one can strive to reach some, if not all of these goals for a better quality of life in their advancing years.


Since joining Wings, for example, Mdm Teo’s life has taken a 180-degree turn. She has line-dancing on Mondays, ukulele lessons on Thursdays, weekly zumba and pilates classes, drama rehearsals for an upcoming theatre production, and on Fridays, she does the treetop walk at MacRitchie Reservoir Park, where she tries to keep pace with seasoned 60- to 70-year-old hikers who she believes have "better stamina" than her.

She said that memorising dance steps keeps her mind sharp, and she is now familiar with the latest pop hits by The Pussycat Dolls and like "Shape of You" by Ed Sheeran, which impressed her two daughters who are in their 20s. “They would say, ‘Mum, I thought you only know (Abba’s) Dancing Queen!” Madam Teo said.

Meeting people at these various activities also helps to motivate her. She witnessed the ukulele players’ zest for learning, listened to the personal struggles of a cancer survivor or a mother whose daughter has Down Syndrome, and went off-the-beaten path to India and Bhutan for her own “spiritual development”.

“All these things, I never learnt from (being in the corporate world). I appreciate life now… There’s a lot of self-realisation and fulfilment,” she said.


Another retiree who keeps fighting fit is 72-year-old Ng Bee Kia.

The former national weightlifter, who used to pump iron and lift 115kg weights, sports a sinewy and lean physique that would put most younger men to shame. He stopped weightlifting in 1978, and went on to work for a cigarette company for more than three decades.

These days, you may find this grandfather of one swimming laps at Yio Chu Kang Swimming Complex or brisk-walking in the mornings at a park in Ang Mo Kio.

Trailing him on a Tuesday morning, the TODAY team watched as he effortlessly did 100 push-ups, and sets of strength-training exercises such as pull-ups and dips. He caught the attention of two lifeguards who threw him praises, and two teenage boys who whipped out their mobile phones to film him in action.

Unofficially known as one of Singapore’s “most ripped Ah Gongs (Grandpas)”, Mr Ng shrugs off such compliments from younger admirers.

Along with other seniors from fitness group Team Strong Silvers, he acts as a role model to encourage fellow seniors to get moving. The group, formed in 2013 and led by four men above 60 years old, regularly holds public demonstrations on calisthenics, which are equipment-free body-weight workouts that can be done indoors and outdoors.

Mr Ng, the oldest member of the group, said in Mandarin: “You can’t just sit at home, doing nothing… If you sit too long, everything will be ‘jammed’.”

At home, he does housework and uses two chairs to do more strength-training exercises — to the bemusement of his wife, who works as a cleaner.

Acknowledging that he is getting on with age, he told of back pains and feeling “less strength” in his legs. Family members, who worry that he might over-exert himself, chide him often, but he said with a wry grin: “They tell me I’m not like young people… but I need to exercise every day, sweat a little. If not, it just doesn’t feel right!”

For Madam Lai Kum Yoong, 78, who had a career in nursing, her workout routine is to go for evening walks of at least 40 minutes thrice a week. The pedometer on her smartphone records that she takes 7,000 steps daily.

“All along, I have been living a very active life. In nursing, you do a lot of walking, talking, counselling and giving advice. It’s something that’s been implanted in me from young,” she said.

She added that regular health screenings such as dental check-ups, cataract tests and orthopaedic doctor visits are a must for her at this age. “You can say I’m kiasu (afraid of losing out), but if I’m not healthy, I cannot take care of the family.”


Having retired in February this year, Mdm Lai gives her time to others by sharing her herbal food recipes with participants during cooking demonstrations at TCM talks. These sessions are part of the Tsao Foundation's Community for Successful Ageing programme at its Whampoa centre.

One recipe from her was for a Chinese pearl barley, papaya and brown rice porridge, recommended for arthritis patients.

"I love teaching them, and they give me very positive feedback, saying, 'Mdm Lai, I went back and tried it. It's really nice.' It's rewarding to pass your knowledge to them. That's what motivates me," she said.

Cooking her own meals is also how 92-year-old Satasivam Amurutham maintains control over what she eats.

Living alone in a two-room rental flat in Henderson, Madam Amu — as friends call her — gets the bulk of her basic necessities from monthly food rations of rice vermicelli, tea and milk provided by the Residents’ Committee and other organisations.

Then, she makes it a point to shop for items to make her meals more nutritious, getting tips from magazines or TV shows. Using the bit of savings and cash her children give her, the former cleaner stocks up on her favourite fruits such as apples, even though it might be slightly more expensive.

She whips up a tasty thosai on her hotplate griddle without all the extra oil and ghee, and eats it with sambal sardine. Other times, there would be a generous serving of vegetables or fish.

Without fail, five days a week, Madam Amu makes a trip to the Thye Hua Kwan Seniors Activity Centre at Henderson, at the foot of her public housing block, to do morning exercises to the tune of the popular Chicken Dance song, or for qigong.

People often do not believe she is 92, and Mdam Amu said that she is blessed to have good health and her family does not have a history of chronic diseases. A positive attitude to life also helps, she added.


Researchers have found that older persons who stay connected with family or community tend not to fall into depression due to loneliness.

In Madam Amu’s case, her five children and 11 grandchildren phone her in the evenings, occasionally visit her, and they take turns to go out with her, to shop for clothes at Tekka Market, for instance.

To while away the slow afternoons, she tends to her little indoor garden of herbs, or chitchats and has potluck meals with fellow residents. There, she gently encourages them to take better care of their health. “If you are strong, then (you can do anything),” she said.

Heart surgeon Tan Yong Seng, 58, agrees that it is crucial for seniors to develop mental wellness as part of healthy living.

Vivacious and animated, he is known as the “dancing doctor” among the interest groups he leads. This he does in his roles as People’s Association’s Active Ageing Council vice-chairman and chairman of the Whampoa Active Ageing Committee.

Helping seniors at these activities enriches him. “At the end of the day, it’s about creating friendships, for people to do things together… When you see their health improve, it’s a joy you can’t describe.”

On a personal level, to keep himself mentally active, he does meditation and goes for ballroom dancing lessons with his wife. The couple have a 29-year-old daughter.

Dr Tan himself had to remedy his own well-being when he was in his 40s. In those days, he was wolfing down his meals in between several operations a day.

His patients would joke about him being overweight at 90kg: “Wow, you’re so ‘bui’ (fat), you sure you can operate on me?’” He recalled: “Everything was just work and very little sleep, obviously, you put on weight… But I said (to myself), I didn’t want to be lying on the operating table one day (getting cut up) by my colleagues.”

Now his diet consists of healthier food such as salads and vegetable smoothies. He consumes less rice and bread, and exercises more. He is able to race up Bukit Timah Hill now “without stopping”, and not “panting” before the halfway mark like before.

Dr Tan said that the problem with working adults is that they do not have hobbies, so they are often left with “nothing to do” once they are in semi-retirement.

Mdm Teo, who acknowledges she is “lucky” to have the means to pursue these hobbies, says the next item to cross off her to-do list is to learn how to play the cajon and drums next year. And in 2019, she hopes to set up an “inspiration club” to mentor and share with young women how to plan their retirement well.

She said: “The biggest challenge for younger women is that they think everything is going to be fine with them. Their current condition is good, so they keep going, just working hard for the company, for the money… and they compromise their health. But (for this), nobody can help you… You have to make the change.”

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