Madam Yong Yin Hoong, 60, lived through tough times when she was young but persevered to become the operations manager of a German company, helping to run its local factory.
But, at the height of her career, she decided on a switch, giving up nearly half of her pay cheque in the process.
She opted to go into social service and thus began a new calling of helping the elderly.
As the assistant manager at Touch Senior Activity Centre in Geylang Bahru, Madam Yong and her team tend to more than 900 seniors every month.
Born in 1958, Madam Yong was the eldest of six siblings. Her family lived in a rented space in a modest shophouse in Cantonment Road.
"Life was not easy. My mother had to work three jobs because my father was really sick," she said. As the sole breadwinner, her mother cleaned three houses every day to make ends meet.
Her father, formerly a clerk, was ill from years of heavy drinking.
After completing her O levels, Madam Yong started work in the army in 1975, helping to replenish the supply of vehicle spare parts.
"I had to learn what were the spare parts of different military vehicles like buses, military cars and models. When the workshop mechanic asked for a spare part, I had to look for it and place orders for it," she said. "It was quite technical, but it was the first job offer I had."
After three years, in 1978, she moved to a motoring company to help sell spare parts for Japanese commercial vehicle maker Isuzu.
There she met her future husband and they got married in 1981.
Over the next 30 years, Madam Yong built a career in selling spare parts for vehicles and machinery in various companies. At the height of her career, she was the operations manager of German chemical company Süd-Chemie S.E.A. and helped run its local factory.
A desire to contribute to society spurred her to make a mid-career switch in 2006.
Madam Yong joined Touch Senior Activity Centre and entered the world of social service.
She started as a programme executive, helping to run activities in Geylang Bahru for seniors, many of whom live in rental apartments.
"I felt like something was missing. I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life," she said. "Initially, there were family objections but eventually they supported me as I felt it was time to give back and serve the seniors."
She said she took a pay cut of almost half of her previous salary when she made the career switch.
Over the past 13 years, Madam Yong has become a part of the lives of many seniors.
A few times a week, she and her team visit every unit of two blocks of rental flats to check in on them. During her frequent rounds over the past decade, Madam Yong has come across frail, elderly people living alone crying for help from their beds and even dead bodies.
She said some of the seniors become hoarders simply because they want company with the clutter, which includes random furniture and other objects like newspapers. "Some seniors have a really bad hoarding problem. I have been to houses where there is rubbish piled up to the ceiling," she said. "Some of them sleep on top on the rubbish."
"I try to build rapport with the seniors and talk them into cleaning their homes," she said. "I no longer get squeamish at the sight of dirt or faeces or blood."
She said: "I build a close relationship with them. Many of them have no one to turn to. So they look at me as their child.
"They tell me everything. When they pass on, I feel so sad. But over the years I realised what matters is that we treat them well when they are around."
Madam Yong also spoke about encountering those who died at home.
"I've walked into houses where people have died. We usually call the paramedics," she said. "When you enter, there is a pungent smell. I can recognise it now."
At other times, it's the neighbours who go down to the centre, worried about someone who has not been seen for days.
"Initially, when seniors passed on I felt really depressed because we were so close," she said. "But over the years, I don't feel so lost or depressed. I learnt how to let go of things. I've learnt to settle one thing at a time."
She also cherishes her time off with her husband and two sons.
"I have come to appreciate both my family and the seniors who have become like family because of our shared experiences," she said.
"I will continue to serve the seniors for as long as I can."
On April 25, Madam Yong received the Healthcare Humanity Award, which was initiated by the Courage Fund in 2004 to recognise those who go the extra mile to offer care and comfort to the sick and the infirm.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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