Helping the elderly live with dignity
Some people spend their Sundays enjoying brunch. Some spend it at church. Sundays for Steven and Irene involve entering the homes of the destitute elderly with their volunteers, spending 8 to 12 hours deep-cleaning a beneficiary’s home. They replace the furniture (often infested by bedbugs), declutter their homes and give the place a fresh coat of paint. Often times, they find interesting trinkets and hidden stories behind the hoards that tend to clutter their homes.
“We were cleaning out an elderly person’s home once and found thousands of dollars hidden in the piles of newspapers that he had hoarded. Every time he withdrew money, he instantly forgot where he put it. Living by himself for many years, there was no one who could help him and with dementia, he couldn’t help himself.”
Steven and Irene, together with 6 other committee members, lead Helping Joy, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Singapore’s elderly with physical and/or mental challenges and financially disadvantaged. Without family members to support their basic needs, they often withdraw into themselves and neglect their health. Unable to keep up with chores, their homes fall into states of squalour. This isolation also leads to mental illnesses like dementia and depression, a downhill journey to death’s door.
The team believes that a clean home is a healthy home. Living in a clean home allows a person to experience less stress, lessen the spread of germs, and enjoy a clear mind. There is also less clutter to create dangerous situations. Often, those who have fallen through the cracks live in homes with clutter stacked up to the ceiling, pungent odours, and sleep on furniture infested by cockroaches and bedbugs. Once, on a house visit, Steven and Irene could barely open the door of the rental flat, and had to climb over stacks of items just to reach the person within.
One of their most recent beneficiaries is 79-year-old Madam Foong. She has been living alone in her one room rental flat ever since her husband passed away 20 years ago. Introverted and isolated, she has no immediate family members to support her and her savings accumulated over a lifetime as a cleaner are almost entirely depleted. Suffering from poor memory and weak legs, she’s unable to work or keep her flat clean; her entire flat and furniture have been infested with bedbugs. The infestation means that she is constantly itching and in pain, and she cannot even escape her reality with a good night’s sleep, after yet another day spent in isolation.
Helping Joy’s next project is to fumigate her home, remove and replace the infested furniture and clean her house to refresh her living conditions, and hopefully, her life. This means that the team needs to raise funds to refurbish her house, buy new bedding, bedframes and other basic furniture and food rations to cater to her needs. They are currently seeking funds to ensure that Madam Foong is able to live her remaining days with dignity. With each home makeover costing $3,000, they’re falling short of their goal. Please support the team’s work here.
Home makeovers are only the first step of the journey that Helping Joy embarks on with beneficiaries. The organisation conducts monthly house visits to maintain these homes, and Steven and Irene, Helping Joy’s only full-time staff, invest their time learning about the needs of the elderly. The team takes the elderly out to be reacquainted with the world they were once a part of, a task not to be underestimated. Having hidden in their homes for so long, some of the elderly can be afraid to leave their flats or get into cars. Even having everyday conversations and encouraging them to stay positive can go a long way in uplifting their spirits and mental health.
With lives as emotionally taxing as theirs, one wonders how they find the strength within to give. But Steven and Irene only feel like received so much more than they have given.
“Whenever we help people, we also learn something about ourselves. We’ve learnt so much from everybody we’ve met in this line of work. I’ve learnt how to communicate with the elderly and what their needs are. With an ageing population, this skill can only get more important. Our lives still have so much more to give. I always tell myself that if you have the ability to help someone, do it.”
Steven and Irene are just two members of Helping Joy’s eight-person strong committee.