Life hasn’t been easy for senior citizen Agnes Teo.
Abandoned by her biological parents for being born a girl, Teo was adopted by her adoptive family at two months old.
Growing up poor, she was forced to terminate her education at Secondary 2 in order to start working. At 14 years old, she was employed as a cleaner for an Israeli family, where she earned only $120 (equivalent to about $500 today) a month.
“I was able to survive back then,” the bright-eyed Teo recounted, “Because everything, from my bus fare, to meals, to my rent, was so affordable.” When she eventually moved out of her parent’s place, Teo said she was paying only $30 a month for rent.
Today, the spritely 73-year-old should be enjoying her old age in retirement. However, due to Singapore’s increasingly high cost of living, a lifetime of earning low wages, and minimal CPF payouts as a result of that, Teo is unable to.
Currently employed as a cleaner for Ng Teng Fong General Hospital, Teo earns S$1,400 a month, while her husband, who retired in 2007, does not contribute much to the household expenses.
Speaking to The Pride, the septuagenarian recalled being caught by surprise when she read about a study that found that people in Singapore aged 65 and above and living alone need about S$1,379 a month to meet basic standards of living.
Teo said vehemently: “I totally disagree. $1,379 a month is insufficient for senior citizens in Singapore.”
“Today, everything is so expensive,” she went on.
Teo and her husband already live extremely simply and frugally, eschewing things deemed “extra”, like entertainment such as going to the movies. Her daily expenses include public transport to and from work, and paying around $20 a day for meals. Her medical expenses, although already heavily subsidised, also take up a sizable portion of her meagre income.
And while she used to receive a small token from her two children, now in their 40s, every month, they’ve recently stopped giving her a monthly allowance because of their own financial commitments.
However, the ever-optimistic Teo is still able to find joy in everything. She counts herself lucky, as she is surrounded by her loved ones, such as her children, adoptive siblings, and church community.
And she admits that the biggest reason she prompts herself to budget wisely is so as to not be a burden on her children.
She revealed that although she may be “as poor as a church mouse”, what she seeks in her old age, goes beyond just her financial needs.
Being surrounded by loved ones is the most important thing
When asked about what she looks forward to the most every day, the mother of two answered simply: “Spending time with my family.”
When Teo became a mother, she left her cleaning job in order to care for her young children full-time. They’d spend hours poring over the latest reads at the National Library. She also taught them her favourite activities, such as cooking, and singing Mando-pop songs.
Sadly, now that her children are grown up and have their own lives, such times are happening more and more infrequently. Her son recently relocated to San Francisco for work, and his wife and their child – Teo’s first and only granddaughter – is set to move over in July, too. Teo’s daughter and son-in-law are also in the process of moving to Malaysia.
She shared: “Whenever I miss my children, which happens often, I recall their younger days… Those are my most precious memories.”
Thankfully, she is never alone. Outside of work, the friendly Teo spends much of her time at church. Smiling, she said: “I am blessed with my many siblings; though they may not be my blood brothers and sisters, they are my brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Her sentiments are echoed by 76-year-old Leonard Chen, a retired private tutor, and grandfather of three.
“I used to take care of my grandchildren when they were younger,” he said. “I would chauffeur them to school and tuition every day, while their parents worked.”
He added: “I would also help my eldest granddaughter with her studies. She was a part of the debate team and would always practise debating with me.”
“She’s a hot-headed girl and we definitely “debated” – more like argued – a lot in her teenage years,” he chuckled.
“She’s working now, so I don’t see her as much,” Chen said.
But the Chen family still makes it a point to gather as a family often.
“We spend time together almost every Sunday after church, usually for a late lunch,” Chen said fondly. “Sometimes we eat out, but most times I’ll drive over and we’ll all spend time at their house together as a family.”
He said: “I don’t really care what we do… be it eat lunch or watch TV – my youngest grandson really loves re-watching those superhero movies – I just love spending time with them.”
The older generation wants to thrive, too, not just survive
Published in late May this year, the report that sought to find out how much is needed for seniors in Singapore to achieve a basic standard of living today has garnered much discussion.
Some netizens have criticised the study for claiming that basic living needs for Singapore’s elderly include items many deem frivolous, such as smartphones and an annual holiday.
But the focus group discussions found that although a basic standard of living in Singapore includes basic material needs like housing, food, and clothing, it goes “beyond subsistence” and “must also ensure quality of life”.
For Teo, her immaterial needs, such as social interaction, independence and work-life balance, are just as important to her.
That’s why someone like her would value their smartphone, over a landline, as it enables a sense of belonging, security, and independence. “I use it every day to WhatsApp and FaceTime my children and church friends,” she confirmed.
Chen also does the same – in fact, the tech-savvy grandfather bashfully admits to being a fan of Telegram, where he loves sending cute stickers to his family, to wish them things like “good morning”.
Additionally, Teo and Chen both consider participating in social activities, such as group outings, essential.
For her, especially, the freedom to engage in her cultural and religious practices, is important. “I feel a true bond of friendship when I gather with my church friends for outings. We meet for prayer, for retreats, and sometimes even for overseas spirituality trips.”
Teo, who went on a silent prayer retreat to Potta, India, in 2016, added: “Activities like that are now the most wonderful, marvellous highlights of my life.”
They may be old, but they still have hopes for their future
Chen’s hopes for the future are simple: “Really, I just want to be alive to see my great-grandchildren,” he joked.
“But my grandkids are still too young, lah,” he said seriously. “I wish for them to live a good life, and that I can stay a part of it for as long as I can.”
As for Teo, she considers it her greatest blessing in life to be a proud grandmother to a healthy, happy 11-year-old girl.
But she admitted that since her son moved abroad this year, and her daughter is in the process of doing so as well, it can be lonely without them. She said candidly: “Sometimes, I feel heartbroken. I will miss my wonderful granddaughter so much when she and her mother join their father in San Francisco.”
Which is why she hopes to be able to visit her son and his family in San Francisco one day.
“Visiting them may very well be near impossible,” she said, a tad sadly, noting the high cost of travelling so far away. “But I would still love to, one day.”
And even though she does not have much, Teo still chooses to focus on the blessings she’s received over the years.
“I’m grateful to have a roof over my head, and friends and family that I love and can rely on.”
“And really, that’s all that I need.”