Hanging out with treasure

Hanging out with treasure

3 May 2016

An encounter with a feisty 86-year-old full of knowledge, humour and delicious generosity.

When people talk about the elderly in Singapore, conversations tend to surround issues of need, vulnerability, and dependency. 

These are significant issues to address, no doubt. But what if we shift the conversation to focus, instead, on the elderly as a resource?

I saw this clearly when I spent time hanging out with 86-year-old Aunty Annie whom I got to know through Pernille, who founded Cycling Without Age Singapore.

Pernille owns a cool, elder-friendly trishaw that she uses to take seniors out on regular rides around their neighbourhood. 

While it's great that Pernille offers them a chance to get out of the house and feel the wind in their faces, the most rewarding and beautiful thing is the conversations exchanged during the rides. 

Aunty Annie has been a resident of Bukit Ho Swee neighbourhood in Singapore for over 50 years now. She lives alone, but often invites family and friends over for food. 

On first sight, she comes across as a feisty person with a sparkle in her eyes. 

Perched on her motorised wheelchair, she led the way from her home to the nearby Salvation Army drop-in centre as my colleagues and I fumbled with our bicycles amid juggling the chaos of camera equipment we'd brought. 

On the way, she shared with me about her family, and what the neighbourhood looked like before and after a historic fire in 1961. 

I learnt a great deal in those 10 minutes – insights that can't be gleaned from books.

"What if we sat down to talk for an afternoon?" I thought. 

As Pernille took her around the Alexandra Park connector, Aunty Annie eagerly pointed out the flora and fauna in the area, explaining to us their local terms and uses.     

When we took shelter from the heat beneath a tree, she whipped out her iPad to show us pictures of her family, and food she'd made. 

Raving about her signature bak chang (dumplings) and popiah (spring roll), she insisted that I had to come back to try them.

The following week, we were treated to a sumptuous meal of homemade popiah, expertly prepared by Aunty Annie. She even taught us mahjong – a game of strategy and calculation, often lost among younger folks.

Throughout my time spent with Aunty Annie, never once did the idea of "need" or "dependency" come up. 

If anything, she felt like a treasure trove of experience and memories - someone with so much to learn from and uncover. 

I felt only privileged to spend time with her. And that's quite the opposite of need.