In 2014, Mr Chen (not his real name) got a divorce and also lost his flat, which he gave up to his former wife.
The next year, auxiliary police officers found Mr Chen, then 59, sleeping at a void deck. He was later admitted to the Bukit Batok Home for the Aged (BBHA), one of 12 welfare homes for the destitute here.
“After my divorce, I was at a loss. I lost all interest in life. I considered myself a failure as I wasn’t able to care for my family,” said Mr Chen, who previously worked as a technician, ship steward and taxi driver, among other jobs. “But after being in this home, I realised things can be better. I felt that there’s a way out of my problems.”
He spoke to The Straits Times last month, when the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) gave ST a rare look into a welfare home here. Welfare home residents include vagrants, the poor, the homeless and those with psychiatric disorders. About half are admitted against their will, when the authorities find they have no place to stay or are not able to support themselves.
Last year, one such resident committed suicide after fleeing one such home, Tembusu Home. The body of Mr Poh Hwe Chee, 70, was found at a park on Nov 9, a day after he fled.
In a coroner’s finding last month, State Coroner Marvin Bay said Mr Poh was depressed after a “severely strained” relationship with his family. He was left to fend for himself after his stepdaughter sold his flat in late 2014, and was unhappy about having to stay at the welfare home.
“Admission to a welfare home is a last resort, only after the resident has exhausted other avenues such as community-based care options,” said the MSF, which funds voluntary welfare organisations to run the homes. BBHA is run by Sathya Sai Social Service.
The number of residents in these homes has been stable – between 1,880 and 1,960 each year – for the past five years. Fewer new residents have been admitted as the elderly have more community and home- based care options now, said an MSF spokesman. She added: “People who are admitted to welfare homes have exhausted these community options and have more complex risks and needs, so it is more challenging for them to be discharged from the homes to the community.”
Thus, fewer residents have been discharged in the past five years.
While most residents are elderly, these homes are not necessarily old folks’ homes. As of the end of April, nearly one in 10 residents was aged below 50. Younger residents are admitted usually because of psychiatric problems or alcohol addictions, which affect their ability to hold a job, said the MSF spokesman.
Six of the 12 homes are in Pelangi Village, a social welfare complex near the Institute of Mental Health in Buangkok. Most house residents with chronic psychiatric disorders, usually schizophrenia. The other homes, like BBHA, are sited near housing estates so residents can engage with the community.
BBHA has 58 staff and 185 residents. As of the end of April, 44 per cent of residents had been there for one to five years. Eleven per cent are long- time stayers – of 16 to 20 years.
Residents follow a set schedule: They sleep at 8pm and wake at 6am; four hours are set aside for meals, and the rest for various activities.
When ST visited on a Monday morning, some were playing chess and mahjong and exercising. With most residents being able-bodied, the home looked more lively than a typical nursing home. Programmes train residents in areas like social etiquette and financial management, to help them achieve self-reliance, reintegrate into the community and live independently again.
Looking ahead, Mrs Tu Kiang Leong, superintendent of the home since 2011, hopes such homes will have smaller capacities.
She said: “In today’s context, many of the elderly residents are educated. They know what they want, and you must be ready to justify (your actions)… If you have too big a group in the homes, it may be more difficult to meet their needs.”
MSF did not give details on future plans for such homes, but said it “regularly reviews the trends and projections for welfare homes”.
Meanwhile, Mr Chen may soon be able to leave BBHA. Since March last year, he has been working six days a week as a foodcourt dish collector for nine to 10 hours. Mr Chen, who is not in contact with his former wife, two children and four siblings, is saving up and hopes to live in a studio flat. “I want to start anew,” he said.