Elderly in foreign nursing homes – something is not right

Would just like to add more thoughts to the article I wrote for Yahoo: “Singaporeans dying away from home”.

It is an emotional issue. There is no doubt about this. After all, we are talking about the elderly who could be our parents and grandparents. And no one in his right mind would want to see them packed off to a foreign land to live their last days. Unconscionable is the right word to use.

In the words of former Minister for Health, Khaw Boon Wan: “Many other sins you can plead to your God and say, sorry, I repent … But lack of filial piety, dumping your parents is inexcusable. Straight down to the 18th level of hell!”

But filial piety aside, the issue is of course a serious one.

Singapore’s budget on healthcare as a percentage of GDP has been between 2 to 4 per cent. Here isWikipedia’s run-run-down of some countries’ healthcare spending (2006/2007) for comparison.

Singapore’s budget in 2006 was a mere 3.3 per cent.

In 2009, it was 3.9 per cent. (See MOH website.)

Countries in the first-world league seem to spend more, according to the Wikipedia list.

With Singapore being one of the fastest-ageing nations in the world, should we not devote more resources to healthcare, especially with regards to the elderly? I think it is an issue worth considering. Of course, we do not want to become a welfare state. But I think it is simplistic to use such terms and dismiss the very real concerns which the elderly and their families have.

There needs to be a balance between not wanting to encourage dependency (although in some cases families really do not have many choices but to depend on the state), and our responsiblities as a nation toward those who have contributed to the wealth of Singapore, however small.

And even if they did not in their earlier years, still I do feel that we should care for them. It is the humane thing to do and we should not be so calculative – and vindictive – to ostracise or worse punish them because they somehow are viewed as not having contributed.

In the bus ride home from JB, I tried to imagine how it would feel like to be one of these elderly persons left in a foreign nursing home in my final years. It was painful even to just imagine this. Being alone, with strange faces, unfamiliar surroundings, far away from the ones you love, knowing or expecting that the only time you will see your real home again is when you’re carted back in a box.

I know the problems are not easy to solve but I do feel that we must start an open discussion about this and not pretend that it doesn’t exist or worse, that the solution is to have these elderly folks moved overseas.

If this is what we think is the solution, then there is no point in teaching our young about filial piety.

While dollars and cents matter, we should also recognise that dignity and compassion do too.

Singapore spends huge amounts on anything and everything – a quarter of the national budget on defence, millions upon millions on sports programmes, millions more on others suh as HDB upgrading. Every five years, we are promised HDB upgrade costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Perhaps we should re-look how we spend our money and devote more of this to areas which are in urgent need. I, for one, for example, could do away with multi-billion dollar HDB upgrading and would vote for the funds to be used for caring for the less fortunate.

I’m sure many Singaporeans would too.

As PM Lee and his predecessor have said, we need to re-focus on the heartware. And when we see our elderly having to seek shelter elsewhere, it is a clear sign that something is amiss – and that this must be put right.