When a fire broke out in a storeroom at retirement complex Kampung Admiralty in December, its "kampung spirit" was tested.
As the fire alarm sounded at lunchtime, some 260 people had to be evacuated - including children from a childcare centre on the sixth floor and seniors from a daycare centre on the seventh floor.
Volunteers from an active ageing hub, mostly seniors themselves, got into action. Some wheeled those in wheelchairs while others escorted children down the stairs. No injuries were reported after the fire.
Said resident Ho Soh Wah, 71, a retired assistant manager from a printing company: "I saw the fire engine coming and people rushing down, so I went to the fire lift to wheel the seniors out to the assembly area at the open plaza."
The 11-storey complex next to Admiralty MRT station is Singapore's first Housing Board project to integrate flats - 104 studio apartments and two-room flexi flats - with healthcare, wellness, childcare and eldercare facilities.
This "high-rise kampung" is meant to be a pioneer for more retirement villages as Singapore's population ages. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his National Day message last year: "We will make it succeed and when it's successful, we will build more kampungs like this in future HDB estates."
Last month, it was announced that Yew Tee will be Singapore's second vertical "kampung" with flats for seniors by 2026.
Some two years after the first residents moved into Kampung Admiralty, The Straits Times looks at life in Singapore's first retirement village.
HUSTLE AND BUSTLE
At 9am on a Wednesday, people in Kampung Admiralty are already in the full swing of things.
Residents and those from the neighbourhood are hanging out at its eateries and open spaces. Students and working professionals throng coffee joint Starbucks and fast-food restaurants, while seniors tuck into kopi, eggs and toast at the hawker centre on level 2.
The HDB did not say how many residents Kampung Admiralty has, but the oldest is 95 and the youngest is 22. Though buyers of the units have to be aged 55 years and above, there are no age restrictions for listed occupants.
The vast majority of the units - 98 per cent - are bought by families or couples, while the remaining 2 per cent are bought by singles.
Mr Ho's wife, Madam Mimi Wong, 69, retired as a tea lady two years ago, but is now hard at work in the kitchen at the active ageing hub at 8.30am. She is preparing lunch - boiling chicken bones for soup and snipping spinach plucked from the rooftop garden - for a group of 40 volunteers and residents who eat together every Wednesday.
Shortly after, she walks over to the community nurse post a few steps away. A nurse from Khoo Teck Puat Hospital is stationed there once a week to help seniors take their blood pressure readings and do eye checks.
Madam Wong, on medication for hypertension, gets an all-clear before she is allowed to participate in a 10.30am exercise session.
"Monday to Friday, I am all occupied," declares Madam Wong proudly. She does gym exercises, line dancing and yoga, plays the glockenspiel and takes courses on dementia. The activities are free as she is an active volunteer at the hub.
Unlike other active ageing hubs which charge a nominal membership fee, NTUC Health has done away with fees on one condition: Participants must volunteer for at least three hours a week.
Says Ms Jeannie Ho, director of the active ageing hub: "It changes the relationship. Instead of receiving services, they become purposeful in the giving of themselves."
Another resident, Madam Asnah Daud, 70, teaches others how to make Malay kueh. She and her husband, Mr Sarip Junit, 73, a part-time security guard, used to live in a three-room flat in Tampines but decided they could do with a smaller flat after their children moved out. "Old people need friends so that life won't be so boring," says Madam Asnah, a former cashier.
But there are groups that observers and residents say are left out: Men and minority ethnic groups. In the Wednesday morning exercise class, for instance, only three men are among the 40 participants, and Mr Sarip is the only Malay. The lack of male participation is common in eldercare centres islandwide.
"I think only two Malay families live here. A lot of the residents also hole up in their own homes and do not come here," says Mr Sarip.
Mr Ho agrees, saying: "When I see my neighbours in the lift and ask them, they say they are working or they don't seem interested in the activities."
Staff from NTUC Health surveyed a group of 46 seniors from Kampung Admiralty in June and found that their quality of life - in terms of finding meaning in life or feeling empowered - had improved by 8 per cent. It intends to do the surveys annually to see if there are further improvements.
Ms Ho estimates that only one in five residents participates in the hub's activities at least once a week.
The so-called "young old" - aged between 60 and 69 - is another group that is not active in the community. NTUC Health estimates that 70 per cent of the residents fall into this group.
"They are the 'young old' so we try to have livelier fitness activities for them. But many of them may still be working," says Ms Ho.
A check by The Straits Times found that most residents keep their doors shut during the day. Only one or two out of every eight units on each floor leave their doors open. Says Madam Asnah: "The front doors are designed to be facing each other, so people tend to close them for more privacy."
Ms Ho says the hub has a group of 12 volunteers who make home visits every week to befriend residents.
Ms Peh Kim Choo, chief executive of Tsao Foundation, a non-profit that focuses on ageing and eldercare, says there is no one-size-fits-all solution to engaging seniors. "One solution could be to do more targeted outreach - for instance, through faith-and ethnic-based communities, " she adds.
SMALL BUNCHES OF VEGETABLES
Some innovative ideas are being tested. To encourage more socialising, the hawker centre on level 2 has large, odd-shaped tables that seat 10 to 20. Groups of male seniors enjoy beer there. The FairPrice supermarket in the basement sells vegetables in smaller bunches for seniors who do not cook much.
Senior citizens, foreign workers and students often lounge around the well-ventilated ground-floor plaza. At night, a few seniors can be seen sleeping on the benches. Residents say they are not their neighbours and are likely to be from other parts of Singapore.
Kampung Admiralty was named Building of the Year at last year's World Architecture Festival, the Oscars of the architectural world.
But there are aspects that residents say can be improved. Mr Ho, for instance, worries about how there were no operating fire lifts in the residential blocks during the December fire.
"A lot of old people in their wheelchairs could be stuck."
However, he trusts that he will be in safe hands should another fire occur. "The people here have a spirit, I don't know what spirit (it is) but I know they will definitely lend a hand when things happen."
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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