SINGAPORE: The 65-year-old man whose decomposed body was found in a Marine Parade flat last week was a fiercely independent person who chose to live alone, and the fact that he lay undiscovered for a number of days does not indicate he lived a sad, lonely life.
That was the view of the man's nephew, who decided to speak out after many online comments suggesting that his uncle, Gerald Fu, must have lived in unhappy isolation.
His nephew Glen, who asked to only be identified by his first name, told Channel NewsAsia that his uncle decided to live alone with intermittent contact with his family after his mother died.
“As an outsider or a family member, you need to know where to draw the line and not to cross that line,” the self-employed 46-year-old said.
When Channel NewsAsia first reported the discovery on Jan 10, the condolences on social media came thick and fast. But some commenters also jumped to conclusions.
“Singapore has come to this stage where old people (are) left alone to survive by themselves,” wrote one person. Another said: “Many old people live alone as they have no family or family members are too busy to bother.”
Such statements have angered Glen, who felt the need to clear the air amid some “pretty nasty things” said online.
“People can make up a lot of things,” he said. “It’s easy to sit there and just type things without actually understanding what happened. And for someone who had led a very fantastic and beautiful life, I felt that it was only right of me to just say a few words.”
According to Glen, his uncle might have wanted a change in lifestyle after flying with Singapore Airlines, where he worked as an in-flight supervisor, for more than 30 years.
“He’d come into contact with many people, so maybe he just wanted some peace to himself,” he suggested. “I guess you can just be tired of mixing around.”
Gerald was also a “headstrong” character who sometimes refused to go to the doctor or have dinner with friends, Glen said. But his uncle was far from reclusive.
“If you flew for 30 over years, you can’t be anti-social,” he said. “I think he reached a stage of life where you sort of quieten down and mellow.”
To that end, Gerald had many family and friends who cared for him. They would occasionally text and visit him, and he would look after their pet dogs from time to time.
“The line was always open both ways,” Glen said. “He didn’t need to be checked up on all the time. He’s always been fine, he’s always been able to do his own things.”
Furthermore, Gerald was “educated enough” to know when to look for help, Glen added.
When Gerald had a heart issue he called Glen, who brought him to the hospital where he was given a stent. After the procedure, Glen offered to take time off from work to bring him home, but he refused.
“Next thing I know, he calls me to tell me I’m home, everything is okay,” he said. “He never liked to encroach on people.”
“FREEDOM” OF LIVING ALONE
National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said some elderly people choose to live alone to avoid the “restrictions and tensions” of living with others.
“Perhaps, they prefer the freedom of not having to adjust to other people’s habits or even put up with their idiosyncrasies,” he said. “Or they themselves have their own habits and idiosyncrasies, which make them difficult house mates.”
While some seniors might not have a choice when it comes to living alone, Dr Tan said, those who do might see it as a “preferred option”.
“This does not mean that they live in complete isolation,” he noted. “They could be living in close proximity to their children, and thereby enjoying intimacy at a short distance.”
According to the 2015 General Household Survey, 82,600 households – or 6.7 per cent of all households – comprised only residents aged 65 or older. About half of these households, or 41,200, are made up of residents who live alone. This figure is estimated to hit 83,000 by 2030.
With that, a growing community network that cares for elderly people who live alone and eases their loneliness in their twilight years has emerged.
Dr Tan added that the bottom line is not whether a senior is living alone, but whether he or she can depend on social, emotional or financial support from a network of family members, relatives, friends and neighbours.
“What really matters is social distance, rather than physical distance,” he said. “One could be emotionally close to a social network of people, even when physically far apart from the people in the network.”
Nonetheless, whenever the body of an elderly person lies undiscovered for a number of days, it generates widespread concern. Just last month, the case of a 68-year-old man who died alone in a Punggol flat saw a similar reaction online.
“GENEROUS” MUSIC LOVER
For Glen, his uncle was a “very, very generous” man who spent S$200 a month to feed the stray cats below his block.
In addition, Gerald was a music lover who bought handmade speakers and boasted over a thousand CDs in his collection. His Peranakan-styled home was also featured in the Home and Decor magazine a few years back.
“Some people who pass away (alone) at home, they live in a probably very sparsely furnished house,” Glen said. “But my uncle was totally different.”
However, Glen admitted that dying alone can be a “very sad” thing, regardless of whether one chose to live alone or not.
“The sad part about my uncle’s death and those that die at home alone is that there was no one there with them,” he said. “And as a relative, you feel like your hands were tied, you couldn’t do anything about it.”
Glen said Gerald texted him more than a week before he died to say that he was not feeling well. Glen wanted to take him to the doctor, but he opted to go to a traditional Chinese practitioner instead.
“I’m still trying to come to terms with that and you know, you try to bash yourself up over it,” he added. “Like why didn’t I do this, why didn’t I do that. But you finally come to realise that if he didn’t want it, you couldn’t do it.”
Glen also spoke of his joy at getting to see his uncle a couple of days before he died. Gerald was on his way back from a grocery run at Parkway Parade when Glen bumped into him.
Gerald looked good, Glen said. “I was happy because I got a chance to hug him,” he added, his voice choking. “At least I had a chance to hug him.”
Glen believes his uncle passed away suddenly because he had looked “perfectly fine” and would have called if he needed help.
“You can be sitting down and you get a sudden heart attack, you can’t move and that’s it,” he said. “You can’t predict this kind of thing. Because if you do, every day will be a headache for you.”
Nevertheless, Glen knows that his uncle would not have changed a thing about the way he had lived.
“There’s this song by Frank Sinatra – it’s called My Way,” he said, referring to one of the tracks on the numerous CDs that Gerald owned.
“My uncle did everything his way.”