SINGAPORE: Qistina Saffarizam has had a rough childhood. Her parents divorced three years ago, leaving the then-Primary Five girl shattered by the breakdown of her family.
She struggled to deal with the situation and the mounting pressures of school, even cutting herself with a penknife as a way of coping.
“Sometimes I feel like, what’s the point of living? I tend to overthink things – whether the people around me are pretending that they like me as a friend and all that.
“And why did my parents get divorced? Was it because of me?” she wondered.
Qistina, now 14, has stopped self-harming but is still an insecure teen who blames herself for her parents’ break-up.
Along came retired nurse Yeo Chwee Fong, 73. A spinster with no children, she was clueless about the Internet and out of touch with the social media generation.
Could she make a difference in the life of a troubled teenager, whose impression of the elderly was that they were judgmental, irritating and even “smell like detergent” at times?
Before they met, Qistina said: “Sometimes, old people tend to look down on young people, and they nag a lot. Even if we do the right thing, they’ll still nag."
It all seemed to point to a daunting 10 weeks during which the two had to pair up for a social experiment in intergenerational relationships, for the documentary Back to School. Five teenagers and five seniors participated in this project.
NOT A GOOD START
Qistina could not be more different from Mdm Yeo. The well-travelled senior, who retired almost 20 years ago, spends most of her time now volunteering at a wellness centre for the elderly and tending to her garden.
The teen, on the other hand, has never been out of the country, and her hours are usually filled with schoolwork at Peirce Secondary, floorball, netball and music.
At their first meeting in Qistina’s school, the two sat on a bench and chatted - although it seemed more like a cross-examination by Mdm Yeo, who peppered the teen with questions such as how much money she spent in school each day (about $5), how much pocket money she received and even who bought her toiletries (her mother).
“I don’t usually interact with children; I’m single. So I’m just curious and will ask more questions – hope you don’t mind, ah?” she asked the teenager, who nodded respectfully but was shocked by the prying senior.
Qistina’s replies were mostly monosyllabic as she was not used to Mdm Yeo’s frank demeanor. “She’s kind of judgmental. The first thing that came out of her mouth was “not bad-looking this girl’,” she later observed.
She had few questions for Mdm Yeo. “I thought that she wouldn’t talk that much, that she’d be the shy type, but she talked quite a lot,” she said.
But just when things were not looking good, Mdm Yeo switched tack and asked the girl about her mother. Only then did the teen start to open up. Like Mdm Yeo, Qistina valued the relationship with her mum.
Mdm Yeo shared about how she retired early to take care of her mum, only to lose her to cancer shortly after – one of the lowest points of her life, she recalled.
“I was very, very close to my mum. After she passed away, I felt lost,” she said. “When she was around, I took her everywhere: Shopping centres, Changi beach and to the markets to makan (eat). Now when I want to go, I’m too lazy and also because I’m alone.”
That's when Qistina also shared her worst fear:
I’m scared my mum will pass away before I turn 20. She’s so supportive. If she’s gone one day, (no one will take care of me).
With the ice broken, Qistina later concluded that Mdm Yeo was “nice” and reminded her of her grandmother, saying: “I’m looking forward to meeting her next week. She gives me good advice and is trustworthy.”
The senior, on her part, felt sorry for Qistina because of her family problems and thought she was “a sweet little girl” who cared greatly for her mother and siblings.
OVERCOMING HER FEAR
Mdm Yeo next accompanied Qistina to her vocal practice ahead of her audition for the school’s singing contest Peirce Idol.
The teen was a bundle of nerves but felt reassured when Mdm Yeo cheered her on and reminded her to relax. “It's okay, take it as your challenge. You can do it!” she encouraged the girl.
On the day of the audition, Qistina was pleasantly surprised when Mdm Yeo turned up to support her.
“I saw her when I was singing, and I was like, ‘Eh, I thought nurse Yeo was busy’, and I was shocked.
“When I looked at her, I remembered her advice to sing a bit louder, which I did,” she said with a smile. And she was touched that Mdm Yeo gave her a rose when she was selected for the finals.
Pleased that her ward had made it through, Mdm Yeo bought her a pair of ear studs and a hairband to wear in the finals. When the big day arrived, the nervous girl excitedly put on the accessories, to the senior’s delight.
Qistina came third, and Mdm Yeo congratulated her warmly on the improvement in her vocals since her training sessions.
The singing competition did wonders for Qistina’s self-confidence. She let on that she did not even get into the semi-finals last year. “I’m proud because I overcame the fear of being alone on stage,” she said.
She was especially moved by Mdm Yeo’s gestures, from buying her gifts to seeking her out just before the final contest to wish her well.
“(Auntie Yeo) said, ‘All the best and all’. But my friends, they WhatsApped me ‘good luck’. I felt that she was more sincere because she came up to me,” she said appreciatively.
SAYING THANKS, WITH GARDENING AND A MEAL
Qistina felt that it was her turn to do something for Mdm Yeo, so she offered to help out in her garden.
“It was very tiring and not fun. But I swept (the garden) for her, so she didn’t have to do it,” she said.
Mdm Yeo appreciated the gesture; it was the first time someone had helped with the gardening. “All along, I’ve been (doing it) alone. It’s good to have somebody do it with me,” she said.
Qistina thought she could do better, however, so she decided to surprise Mdm Yeo with a home-cooked meal, whipping up a three-course meal of salad, macaroni and cheese and freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies with the help of her friends.
“It was my idea," the teenager said. "She bought me ear studs and the accessories, but I didn’t buy her anything. So maybe, cooking would do."
Mdm Yeo was touched by Qistina’s efforts, although she had to skip the mac and cheese as she does not take cheese, to the chef’s disappointment. "I’m very happy,” Mdm Yeo reassured her. “Nobody has cooked for me. I cook for people to eat, but nobody cooks for me.”
“She kept smiling,” beamed Qistina.
The 10-week journey was one of self-discovery and changing perceptions for Qistina, who credited Mdm Yeo with being a great mentor and encouraging her, especially during Peirce Idol, to push on and not give up.
Before the start of the social experiment, she and the other teenage participants had gone through a psychometric assessment, and she rated poorly in her self-esteem test. Her well-being test also indicated that she was deeply unhappy.
At the end, she was tested again, and her self-esteem scores jumped from extremely low to above average.
“I want to thank (Auntie Yeo) for building up my confidence. I’m still a bit insecure but I did improve.
“Auntie Yeo is caring, and I want to bring that out; I want to be as caring as her,” she said, adding that she did not look down on herself any more.
The two have gone from strangers to friends, and Qistina now considers Mdm Yeo someone she can talk to and turn to for advice.
“They (the elderly) do know more than us younger people, and they can give good advice. They might be chatty sometimes, but you can learn something new from these seniors,” she said.
Mdm Yeo and her fellow seniors were also tested before and after the experiment, by a team of medical professionals led by geriatrician Carol Tan, in areas that decline with age, such as mood, memory, mental dexterity and mobility.
After 10 weeks, Mdm Yeo’s normal walking speed had improved, and she felt more energetic. In the sit-and-reach test, her results improved by an inch.
She also declared that the opportunity to mingle with the young ones has made her happier. “We old people tend to mingle with just our age group," she said.
Young people can get along with old people, but the seniors must open up and put in more effort. We have to join them.
She even joked: “Now thinking about it, I should have got married and had children of my own.”
What amazed her throughout this encounter with Qistina was the young girl’s resilience, considering her circumstances. “She’s still so bubbly and positive. She’s a nice, soft-spoken girl. I take my hat off to her.”
Read: A boy, the 83-year-old loner, and the unlikely friendship that changed them both. Watch more stories of intergenerational friendships like these, on the series Back to School here.