Commentary: A bold vision of happy housing options for Singapore’s seniors

Commentary: A bold vision of happy housing options for Singapore’s seniors

Singapore has a vision of becoming a world-class city and an endearing home. These high standards that we demand from our quality of life must be applied to our housing options in our old age, says one observer from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

senior citizens doing taichi
Senior citizens in a mass qigong event at Singapore Botanic Gardens. (File photo)

SINGAPORE: In her speech to the Parliament on Monday (May 7), President Halimah Yacob stressed Singapore’s foundational values of self-reliance and inclusiveness. 

She also spoke about helping older Singaporeans with social inequality, new housing options, and staying employable. She expressed a vision of Singapore as a “world-class city and an endearing home”.

With the population of Singapore becoming so rapidly older, the aspiration of inclusiveness and developing an “endearing home”, should mean that seniors should be spending their time as mainstream members of society, not just at play, but also at work and in building happy, healthy communities.

The retirees of tomorrow will not be the same as the retirees of today. They will be healthier, better educated, and have higher expectations of a post retirement lifestyle. With seniors expected to reach 25 per cent or more of our population in 2030, it is important to look at their quality of life.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said on Wednesday (May 9), that one of the broad strategies the Government will focus on is to develop and implement policies to enable all Singaporeans to age with purpose and dignity.

OUR DEMOGRAPHICS

Singaporeans have one of the world’s longest life expectancies. They also expect to live many years after age 65 in good to excellent health. The years lived in good health is a trend that has been increasing. 65 may be the new 50 as far as physical and mental capability is concerned.

In 2030 and beyond, mainstream life in Singapore will be coloured in senior terms, as our population becomes one quarter aged. One only needs to look to Japan, who are one quarter senior now, and read news about how their society is faring.

A growing number of Japanese companies are encouraging exercise breaks, in the hope of keeping
A growing number of Japanese companies are encouraging exercise breaks, in the hope of keeping employees limber - and productive - for longer, as the nation contends with a shrinking labour pool and a fast ageing population. (Photo: AFP/Toru Yamanaka) 

The current generation of retirees were around 40 to 49 in the early 1990s.

In 1990, the 40 to 49 age group was six times more likely to have a below-secondary school education than this age group in 2017. They were also 10 times less likely to have a university education.

The current generation of retirees have a vastly different education than our future generation of retirees. They will also have an income and a lifestyle expectation to match. They are also likely to be more capable in professional terms.

The number of households with only seniors living in them has been increasing. This number has almost doubled since 2012 and is likely to increase dramatically again by 2030. Single people in the 40 to 49 year age group form almost 30 per cent of this age group.

One can only do so much line dancing, tai chi, karaoke, travel, grandchild sitting and so on, before it begins to pall for some. Families are getting smaller too, with less having children, so the option to stay with family is getting less relevant. Singapore has one of the world’s lowest fertility rates, which has been below replacement rates since the 1970s.

Elderly people gather to play a checkers game
Middle-aged and elderly men playing checkers in their housing area in Singapore (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

What these mean is that we can expect retirees in the coming decades to depend less on family, have higher expectations of lifestyle, and be capable of engaging in work, play and interaction with the community in significant ways.

IMPORTANT TO THINK BOLDLY AND EXPERIMENT

The Government has been heavily involved with promoting active ageing, ageing in place, and outreach to all seniors through programmes such as Silver Generation Ambassadors. This is very laudable and may even be unique in the world for its ambition.

Retirement is frequently associated with a long slow road of decline. Much planning is spent on retirement adequacy, health and disability care. All these things are necessary, but insufficient.

How dreary and wasted is a life spent just passing the time, without meaning, waiting to die? What is the desired quality of one’s senior life? What are the expectations and aspirations?

80 per cent of our population live in HDB estates - a great achievement by the Government. However, the overwhelming dominance of HDB and heavy reliance on government programmes may subtly lead us down well-travelled paths, and steer us from trying better solutions.

Second Beginnings, a publication of the Lien Foundation, underlines this.

We have been trapped in a ‘false choice’ between institutional long-term care and an idealised ageing-in-place vision. Healthcare institutions have traditionally been driven by a biomedical perspective on ageing that emphasises dependency, loss and decline.

ONE IDEA: COOPERATIVE LIVING FOR SENIORS

This idea is not for everyone. However, it might appeal to some.

Supposing we form complete communities with seniors in a high-density living concept. Each senior can pay for 10 to 30 sq m of private space and an additional 15 sq m of common space. With 1,000 seniors, this can mean 15,000 sq m of common space. As a reference, the retail space of Raffles City is 39,000 sq m.

The common space will be shared by all seniors and will include both businesses such as shops, supermarkets, clinics, childcare, kindergartens, yoga studios, disability care, as well as facilities such as common dining, recreation, exercise and other areas. These are facilities that will allow seniors to work, play and interact with the community.

Seniors will get income from rental from these businesses but should also be encouraged to work at these venues with flexible work arrangements in place, and a small full-time professional staff to facilitate these arrangements.

There should be no question of ageism or non-inclusiveness in these arrangements. With a large community of seniors, one can surely find almost any pre-retirement profession especially if units are sold to a wide socio-economic audience.

HOW WILL THIS BE FUNDED?

Currently, the Government has a programme to encourage seniors to downgrade to 2-room flexi flats with leases as short as from 15 years and prices from S$28,000 for a 36 sqm flat. From a financial point of view, rightsizing to this cooperative living community is going to be similar.

hdb flats (2)
A view of an HDB block of flats in Singapore. (Photo: TODAY/file photo)

To get the right price and avoid the risk of outliving the lease or having seniors choose a non-optimal lease, the price should include an insurance component so that seniors can be guaranteed accommodation as long as they or their partner live.

The Government can assist by allocating and regulating land to be used only for this type of property arrangement, along with modifications to regulations relating to strata title living.

I would recommend this be developed by the private sector to allow for innovation. Fears that such an option would be priced out of reach for people can be allayed by cash subsidies for those earning a lower income, and regulation to ensure a range of accommodation types in the same development.

With economies of scale, fees paid by seniors need not be high. Seniors will also earn from the co-ownership of businesses and the ability to work flexibly.

President Halimah said “We may be tempted not to go for bold changes, but instead be content to tweak things at the margins”. 

So too must we apply this vision to housing for seniors – to ensure a high quality of life that allows them to be self-sufficient, giving them autonomy and control over their golden years.

Tan Jin Meng is a postgraduate from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy with an interest in social policy and economics.

Source: CNA/nr

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