Lending a hand and making new friends, one wheelchair at a time

Lending a hand and making new friends, one wheelchair at a time

Fixing wheelchairs might be an unusual skill to pick up, especially for an elderly person. But under this pilot programme, active seniors with ample free time on their hands are trained to join the "Wheelchair Brigade", where they help their friends and neighbours remain mobile.

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Mdm Jamilah Gulam has gotten her wheelchair fixed multiple times over the past two years by Mr Mohd Ali Abdullah. (Photo: Lianne Chia) 

SINGAPORE: It is a sunny afternoon at the Sunlove-Kampong Chai Chee Senior Activity Centre, and 72-year-old Mohd Ali Abdullah is hard at work, his eyes fixed on the wheelchair lying on its side in front of him. With practised skill, he unscrewed the front wheel and removed it.

“You see?” he said, pointing to the tufts of hair and dirt caught in the wheel's hub. “Stuck.”

As he used a brush to carefully dislodge the hair and sprayed some lubricant onto the wheel, he invited this reporter to give the wheel a spin. “See?” he said, smiling proudly as the wheel spun smoothly. “Just take the hair out, spray a bit and it’s okay already.”

A regular at the Senior Activity Centre (SAC), Mr Ali would have whiled his days away playing games and chatting with his friends at the centre - other retirees in the community.

But slightly over a year ago, he was recruited to join what is fondly known as the “wheelchair brigade”: Active seniors who volunteer their time and effort to service the wheelchairs of their needy peers.

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Dirt and hair tends to get trapped in the wheel with regular use. (Photo: Lianne Chia) 


Mr Ali joined the WHEELS programme which is administered by the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC) and charity Kampung Senang, with funding from Temasek Foundation Cares. As part of the programme, seniors like Mr Ali are trained to service the wheelchairs of needy seniors in the community.

“Wheelchairs are a key device frail seniors need to move around,” explained Woon Saet Nyoon, chief executive of Temasek Foundation Cares. “We realised that there were many times when they needed some help with their wheelchairs - either the tyres got flat, or it didn’t move around very well, or the nuts and bolts got loose - and they didn’t know where to go for help.”

“Then at the same time, we saw a lot of seniors who were not doing much with their time … so we thought, why not get them to learn a new skill?”

The three-year pilot programme was first launched in 2017 at five SACs in Bedok and Tampines. It has since been expanded to seven centres, including two eldercare centres. They are assessing the outcome of the pilot before expanding it to other areas.

Ms Woon explained that prior to the launch of the pilot, Kampung Senang volunteers had already been servicing wheelchairs for elderly beneficiaries. But with the pilot, the programme has been expanded to get active seniors on board.

A structured training programme was also developed, where seniors are sent to a centralised training centre in the Tampines area to be trained by Kampung Senang volunteers.

The programme includes six hours of theory lessons and supervised practical sessions, and covers topics like understanding the wheelchair components, maintenance, inspection and safety evaluation.

The seniors then return to the SACs where their services are readily accessible to those who need them.

“When they go through the course, they feel that they’re doing something good, and they get to learn a new skill, instead of just sitting there chit-chatting or playing games,” she said. “And when they know they are doing something to help another resident, they are even more willing to learn.”

So far, they have trained more than 35 seniors as wheelchair technicians, and they hope that at least 600 frail seniors can benefit from the scheme.


68-year-old Jamilah Gulam is one of them. She has been wheelchair-bound for more than a decade after suffering a nasty fall.

But this has not stopped her from going out and about: She enjoys going about her daily activities like visiting the market or mosque, or spending time with her grandchildren at the beach.

What can put a brake on her daily activities, however, is if issues crop up with her wheelchair. The tyres do get worn down and the screws do become loose and need tightening from time to time.

Without the wheelchair, Mdm Jamilah is confined to her bed, dependent on her children or relatives to fulfil her needs.

“It was very difficult,” she said in Malay through a translator. “The wheelchair is very important.”

But she smiled as she caught Mr Ali’s eye and gave him a thumbs-up: Two years ago, she was invited to the launch of the WHEELS pilot programme, and it was there that she met Mr Ali, who has been making sure that her wheelchair is in good order ever since.

“I will just call him, and he will come right away,” she said. “He also taught me how to do simple checks, like if the screw is loose.”

“Sometimes I ask him if I should pay him,” she added. “But he always says no need, free one.”

“So I just buy him coffee or water, ok lah.”

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It takes about 30 minutes on average for Mr Ali to fix a single wheelchair, which includes basic servicing such as cleaning and tightening of loose screws. (Photo: Lianne Chia) 

“Yes, no need money,” Mr Ali chimed in.

He is enthusiastic about his role, talking animatedly about the people he has met since he started out almost two years ago. And it turns out that Mdm Jamilah and Mr Ali were in fact old friends: they are neighbours and he was friends with Mdm Jamilah’s husband.

“I will try my best to help them,” he said.

“I saw some people with spoilt wheelchairs … they have to wait for their daughter or son, and they cannot go jalan-jalan,” he said.

“I like making them happy when I fix their wheelchairs.”

It takes him about 30 minutes to fix a single wheelchair, which involves basic servicing such as cleaning and tightening of loose screws. More complex tasks, such as fixing the brakes and tyres, can take about two to three hours and also requires the help of another person.

There are scheduled monthly servicing sessions, but Mr Ali says he is available to help whenever he is needed.

“I am here every day,” he said. “If people see me here, they ask me, and I will help.”

“They know that if they have wheelchair problems, they can come and find me.”

 And ultimately, he shows no sign of stopping. 

"I will do (this) as long as I can," he said, a broad grin lighting up his face. "If you help other people, the god will help you back.

"So you must go on helping people." 

Source: CNA/lc