Making Singapore more accessible to the elderly

I recently brought a colleague visiting Singapore for the first time to Tiong Bahru, one of the oldest housing estates in Singapore. The “must-see” neighbourhood is one of my first stops when showing overseas friends around.

The estate does embody Singapore’s essence of mixing the old with the new: up and coming hipsters cafes and bakeries alongside hawker fares and kopitiam coffee shops; post-war HDBs versus mostly yuppies-occupied condos and BTOs.

While on our way to Tiong Bahru Food Market and Hawker Centre, we passed by one of the old flats in the estate and saw an elderly struggling to get up the flight of stairs to her unit. To provide some context, these units were built in the 1930s and typically don’t have lifts like most modern buildings.

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(One of the HDB blocks in Tiong Bahru)

My generation is so used to having lifts stop at every floor that the idea of climbing the stairs – no matter if it’s just one flight – is enough to send us into fits of complaints and sweat. Can you imagine what it must be like for the old granny to have to do that on a daily basis?

The problem of accessibility is not just limited to Tiong Bahru. Toa Payoh, another one of the earliest public housing areas, also lacks elderly- and/or handicapped-friendly facilities. Take a look at one of the typical design of older HDB units where there’s usually a short flight of steps leading up to the front door:

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This question of making HDB units more wheelchair- and elderly- friendly is certainly a looming one, especially since Singapore is increasingly facing the issue of an ageing population.

The chart below shows the steady increase in the proportion of citizens aged 65 and above from 2001 to 2012:

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(Source: Population in Brief 2012, Department of Statistics Singapore)

84 year old Mr Chia Boon Hock is wheelchair-bound and getting out of his Ang Mo Kio flat requires the assistance of two to three people to navigate the three steps outside the entrance of his flat.

These flats built between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s were initially designed to increase privacy for those living along common corridors and ground floor units but inadvertently caused multiple inconveniences to those with mobility issues, creating difficulties walking up the stairs with a knee walker for example, as many elderly tend to do.

Not surprisingly, this was among some of the questions raised by Mr Ang Hin Kee, MP of the Ang Mo Kio GRC during a recent Parliament session: what are some of the initiatives in place to provide easier access to the physically-challenged or elderly residents who are staying in old HDB flats designed with steps leading to their units?

HDB is taking progressive measures to ensure that such circumstances are taken into consideration. Newer housing estates have lifts serving every floor and their wider walkways accommodate the size of a wheelchair.

These are all under HDB’s Universal Design (UD) features within and outside the flat to provide a user-friendly environment to all residing within the precinct.

For existing older flats, HDB has launched the Enhancement for Active Seniors (EASE) Programme, piloted at Bukit Merah and Kallang-Whampoa in early 2012. Some of the options that elderly residents can choose from include ramps and slip-resistant treatments to bathroom/toilet floor tiles.

However, there is definitely room for improvement in terms of making the housing estates in Singapore more accessible for those in wheelchairs and the elderly. For example:

  • Emphasise the importance of long-term planning: the demographics of those staying in the up-and-coming estates will eventually change and instead of having to overhaul the design of the flats, these factors should be taken into account right from the beginning so that any revamps can be done as addition fixtures and not require any major renovations.
  • Priority for first floor units to be given to the elderly: particularly in relation to the older estates where there are no lifts or if they don’t stop at every level, an elderly should be given priority for making purchases on such re-sale units.

Growing old is inevitable but that should not limit the elderly from going about to carry out their daily activities.

Hopefully these changes and considerations can shed light on the inconveniences that the elderly in our midst currently face and make Singapore a better place for us to grow old in!


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