Building An Elderly-Friendly City

There are no easy solutions, but clearly, what Singapore urgently needs is a change in our mindset towards old age.

In bustling New York City, trendy peer-to-peer businesses like vacation rental service Airbnb and rental-car service RelayRides are booming.

But another novel approach to the sharing economy has taken off in the Big Apple. It is one that aims to tackle a rapidly ageing population, an issue that many cities around the world, including Singapore, now face.

Called TimeBanksNYC, this citywide programme was founded in 2010 on the concept of neighbours helping neighbours. Even though it focuses on older adults, it also gives all New Yorkers a chance to learn new skills, take part in community projects and even find companionship for sports and recreational activities.

Members choose from its database of activities and services, and in exchange, offer their activities and services. For instance, a member can tutor another in mathematics or Spanish, in return for dance lessons taught by a different member.

TimeBanksNYC is just one of 59 programmes developed by the city’s administration and the New York Academy of Medicine in an initiative called Age-Friendly NYC, part of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Age-friendly Cities project, that promotes ways to make New York City friendly and liveable to older residents. (See “A place for everyone” on inclusive communities in other countries.)


cover-ibasho-cafe-286x400-overwrite_tab-what-will-it-take-to-build-a-city-for-all-ages-a non-profit organisation called Ibasho aims to create socially integrated communities that support inclusive ageing and living. The word is loosely translated from Japanese to mean “a place where you can feel like yourself”. Ibasho communities in Japan, the Ivory Coast, Bhutan and Sri Lanka don’t segregate the elderly from other age groups. Rather, their needs, experience and values are included in infrastructure planning from the design to engineering stages. For example, after Japan’s tsunami in 2011, an Ibasho cafe was set up in a temporary housing community in one of the worst-hit areas in Iwate province. Senior citizens, along with others in the community, run the cafe. The seniors also help each other and other residents with daily chores such as grocery shopping and babysitting, and even conduct basic health checks on each other.

New York City easily ticks off the WHO’s 84-point checklist of essential features of age-friendly cities in eight areas: outdoor spaces and buildings; transportation; housing; social participation; respect and social inclusion; civic participation and employment; communication and information; and community and health services.

Specific points include wheelchair-friendly pavements, reliable and frequent public transport, positive public images of ageing, ample employment options for older workers, wide public access to the computers and the Internet, and care facilities located close to residential areas so that elderly residents are integrated in the larger community.


Ageing in Singapore

Building An Elderly-Friendly City

Although Singapore is not part of the WHO’s list of Global Age-Friendly Cities project that involves 33 cities in 22 countries, the Singapore government has already embarked on its City for All Ages (CFAA) Project (see story “Singapore: A City For All Ages”).

After all, in Singapore, the number of citizens aged 65 and above will triple to 900,000 by 2030, an unprecedented age shift, with the ageing of the baby boomer generation.

The number of socially isolated elderly is also likely to increase to 83,000 by 2030, up from about 35,000 now. And, life expectancy has increased from 66 years in 1970 to 82 years in 2010, making it one of the highest in the world.

How does Singapore measure up against the other Global Age-Friendly Cities?

Urban planners note that Singapore’s age-friendly infrastructure has improved tremendously over the years. Mr Jeffrey Ho, Managing Director of consultancy firm Surbana Urban Planning Group, says that barrier-free features for the disabled “also cater to the needs of the aged”. These include wheelchair ramps, lifts that stop on every floor in HDB flats and retrofitted homes to make them more age-friendly.

But as other experts have pointed out, Mr Ho thinks Singapore still has some way to go. “We are still learning from Japan, Taiwan and the [United] States on the software and hardware of catering to the aged.”

Part of the reason is historical, says Dr Loke Wai Chiong, Director of Global Healthcare Centre of Excellence, KPMG in Singapore. In May this year, the professional services firm produced a report titled An Uncertain Age: Reimagining Long-Term Care in the 21st Century. Commissioned by the Lien Foundation, it looked at different trends and approaches of longterm elderly care from around the world.

Dr Loke says: “Singapore, along with many other ageing countries, is starting to find that it has underinvested in this sector through no particular oversight. It was never a priority. In fast-growing economies, often the early years are focused mainly only on economics, and many countries have been almost caught unawares by the ageing issue.”

It was never a priority. In fast-growing economies, often the early years were focused only on economics, and many countries have been almost caught unawares by the ageing issue.

Adding flavour to Stravinsky's Ballet

Twenty-three seniors from Asian Women’s Welfare Association Elderly Services, NTUC Eldercare and Henderson Senior Citizens’ Home did something quite different from their daily routine on June 22, 2013. They were on stage at the Esplanade Concert Hall, performing in The Rite of Spring: A People’s Stravinsky, a Singapore interpretation of composer Igor Stravinsky’s 100-year-old ballet, The Rite of Spring.

Building An Elderly-Friendly City
The oldest performer, Mr Benny Phang, is 93 years old. Here, he is getting ready for the publicity photo shoot. Photo Credit: Guek Peng Siong

A collaboration by The Philharmonic Orchestra (Singapore) and dance group The ARTS FISSION Company, the performance was developed based on a community-centred approach. It roped in children, youths and seniors to perform alongside professional musicians and dancers.

The original Stravinsky ballet highlights the customs of rural folk in Russia while the local production interprets rituals of spring in Chinese culture. Its stage director and choreographer, Ms Angela Liong, drew on the 24 seasonal markers of the ancient Chinese calendar for the performance. She wanted an intergenerational cast to highlight the concept of regeneration and the cycles of nature.

Building An Elderly-Friendly City
Elderly performer P. Seeni guided by her dance volunteer Nur Liyana Binte Mohammed Aminuddin Photo Credit: Lee Siew Yian

She also wanted to reframe how society usually views seniors as “old, frail, unseen”. In her production of The Rite of Spring, the senior citizens play a wise council of elders, who are leaders in their community.

The seniors were introduced to contemporary dance theatre and Stravinsky’s music through dance-theatre workshops. They were also matched with young volunteers in a buddy system for the workshops and performance. Ms Liong revealed that the seniors named their dance moves after everyday actions in order to remember them. This included dubbing a wristshaking action as “stirring kopi-o”.

Building An Elderly-Friendly City
Seniors in a workshop conducted by the organisers. Photos Credit: Chua Boon Ping

Building An Elderly-Friendly City
Mayu Watanabe, a dancer with The ARTS FISSION Company, in a workshop at the Asian Women's Welfare Association. Photo Credit: Daryl Yeo

For more information and photos, go to 

Working for the future

Building An Elderly-Friendly City

Active seniors like Dr Rosemary Khoo, 71, are an encouraging example. Trained as an educationist and applied linguist, Dr Khoo (who had a 40-year career in the Singapore education) now devotes her time volunteering in the National University of Singapore’s Senior Alumni Group, the Chinese Development Assistance Council and the University Women’s Association (Singapore) which she founded in 1996.

She wonders if there is a Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, as well as Youth Park, why shouldn’t there be a Ministry for Ageing to focus on the issues of ageing?”

Dr Khoo, who feels there is subtle discrimination against seniors in Singapore, contrasts this to Japan, where she worked as Professor of English for two years in the late 1990s and was struck by the reverence given to age in that culture. “The University President assured me that my age of 53 then was not old (he himself was 64). There was also a number of elderly staff in the University.

“Living in Japan, I was surprised by the nimbleness of the many spritely old who sit with their legs folded beneath them and how easily they got up after that. Older persons were often featured on TV giving comments, which we don’t see much of here.”

Interestingly, Dr Khoo believes that focusing on seniors’ well-being is actually healthy for Singapore’s demographics in the long term. She likes to tell young people that she is “working for their future” because “when young people see that older persons after retirement lead active, productive lives with their housing and healthcare needs met, they will be encouraged to remain in Singapore.”

When young people see that older persons after retirement lead active, productive lives with their housing and healthcare needs met, they will be encouraged to remain in Singapore.

On the right track

Building An Elderly-Friendly City

While the situation in Singapore clearly needs improvement, things are on the right track, the various experts Challenge spoke to noted.

Says Assoc Prof Chan: “Singapore is making headway. We are a model for other Asian countries, which have not yet seen an ageing population, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.”

Gerontologist Dr Kalyani Mehta agrees. The Head of SIM University’s Master of Gerontology Programme and former Nominated Member of Parliament says: “One of the main ways to adapt to an ageing population is first of all to acknowledge that we are an ageing society.

“However, that does not equate to a society with an ageing burden. Older persons are our assets and receptacles of wisdom!”

She adds: “Once we can identify the many ways by which older persons help out in families, for example, as grandparents; in communities, for example, as ethnic leaders or religious mentors; and in society at large, for example, as volunteers in welfare organisations; we will begin to view them from a different lens.”

Only then, can change truly come.

    Sep 10, 2013
    Denyse Yeo
    Ng Shi Wei
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