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Speech by Minister for Social and Family Development Mr Desmond Lee on the motion on support for seniors

INTRODUCTION

1.     Mr Deputy Speaker, sir, I will elaborate on our efforts in housing, our urban environment, and social support. 

CITY FOR ALL AGES

2.     I begin with thoughtful planning and design of our infrastructure. 

Design of Common Spaces and Facilities

3.     Ms Tin Pei Ling, Ms Cheryl Chan, Ms Joan Pereira and Dr Lily Neo spoke about how we should design and retrofit our HDB flats, estates and public infrastructure, to enable our seniors to age actively, comfortably and safely.

4.     Today, when building our new estates, HDB’s consultants adopt BCA’s Accessibility Code and guidelines.

5.     For example, common spaces are designed with ramps instead of just steps, and seamless barrier-free routes connect various amenities, for our seniors and wheelchair-bound users. Three-generation fitness and play facilities also facilitate social interaction between our seniors and the community.

6.     Within our flats, senior-friendly features are provided – such as gentle gradients at the main entrance, common bathrooms that are wheelchair-accessible, and more user-friendly clothes drying systems.

7.     The bigger challenge has been to retrofit our older, mature estates, to make them more senior-friendly. We have been doing this assiduously, over many years.

8.     Since the 2000s, we deliberately added more ramps, linkways and senior-friendly facilities to mature estates through programmes such as the Neighbourhood Renewal Programme (NRP) and Community Improvement Projects Committee (CIPC). The Lift Upgrading Programme, implemented since 2001, has also provided direct lift access to residents in about 5,200 HDB blocks. Through the City for All Ages and Enhancement for Active Seniors (EASE) programmes, HDB is also retrofitting existing HDB estates and flats with more features, such as grab bars and non-slip toilet flooring, to enhance mobility and comfort for our seniors, benefiting more than 130,000 families thus far. 

9.     Making our mature estates elderly-friendly requires a community effort. That is why programmes such as the NRP and CIPC are structured to allow the community to participate in decision making.

10.     Private building owners can also tap on BCA’s Accessibility Fund. This, which provides co-funding to encourage them to retrofit their private buildings that pre-date 1990, to make them senior-friendly. 

11.     Sir, we continue to research and study other ways and options to how we can make our environment more senior-friendly.

Monetisation of housing 

12.     I next turn to housing asset monetisation, a point raised by various Members

13.     Ms Chia Yong Yong, Mr Gan Thiam Poh, Ms Rahayu Mahzam and Mr Henry Kwek suggested ways to help seniors unlock more value from their homes, to supplement their retirement needs. 

14.     The Lease Buyback Scheme (LBS) was first introduced in 2009, giving lower-income seniors living in 3-room or smaller flats the option to sell back and monetize the tail-end of their leases to HDB, while continuing to live in their flats. The scheme was expanded in 2015 to cover 4-room flats. 

15.     Currently, the LBS is not open to households in larger flats as they have more monetisation options than those in smaller flats. For instance, they can right-size to a smaller flat in the same neighbourhood. Under the Seniors Priority Scheme, seniors, including those in private properties, enjoy priority in their application for a 2-room Flexi-flat in the same town or estate as their current home. 

16.     If seniors living in larger flats right-size to a 2- or 3-room flat, they may apply for the Silver Housing Bonus and receive a cash bonus, if they use some of their proceeds to top up their CPF Retirement Accounts and join CPF LIFE. 

17.     To raise awareness of these and other monetisation options, HDB works with our media, organises public talks and seminars, and sets up booths at local community events. 

18.     Seniors also receive personalised information on their monetisation options, when they carry out housing transactions at our HDB counters. Most recently, HDB and the CPF Board sent out individually customised mailers to seniors about the range of monetisation options that are available to them.

19.     Ms Chia Yong Yong, Mr Henry Kwek, and Mr Gan Thiam Poh suggested other ways of monetising properties which do not require our seniors to move home, such as reverse mortgages (RM) and specialised funds based on the French concept of “Viager”.

20.     Financial institutions (FIs) are already allowed to offer Reverse Mortgages and these specialised funds. However, both are complex financial products which are more difficult to understand. The risk that the value of the payouts may exceed that of the property could also impact their attractiveness to home owners.

21.     In fact, NTUC Income and OCBC bank stopped offering Reverse Mortgages in 2009, precisely due to a lack of demand. Recent surveys also found that many seniors were generally averse to the idea of Reverse Mortgages as they preferred to remain debt-free at that stage in life.

22.     Some of the options I mentioned earlier, like buying a 2-room Flexi flat with priority allocation, are also open to seniors living in private properties who may wish to consider asset monetisation. In addition, with the changes announced by MAS in March 2017, they may also obtain mortgage equity withdrawal loans from Financial Institutions.

23.     MAS had announced that such loans that are less than 50% of the market value of the property would no longer be subject to the Total Debt Servicing Ratio (TDSR) framework. This may help retirees – many of whom would have paid up most of their outstanding housing loan – monetise part of the value of their property.

24.     Let me assure Members that we will continue to study and review options to help our seniors who wish to better monetise their homes, to supplement retirement needs.

KAMPONG FOR ALL AGES 

25.     Sir, we need both the “hardware” as well as the “heartware” if we want to build a community where our seniors can age happily, supported by the community around them. To do so, we have to plan well ahead. This involves nurturing communities of care, strengthening community care and service delivery for vulnerable seniors, planning ahead for seniors who may lose or have lost mental capacity, and putting in place laws to protect vulnerable seniors. 

26.     The composition of families has shifted over the years. Family sizes are shrinking, and we see more seniors who live alone, or without children.

27.     Because of this changing profile, we have to pro-actively ramped up efforts over the years to complement family support, while at the same time encouraging the strengthening of family ties. 

28.     Mr Henry Kwek and Ms Joan Pereira suggested introducing Senior Care leave to employees caring for their parents. Caregivers of elderly parents need support and understanding, and I thank Mr Kok Heng Leun for his very heartfelt sharing of his experience, for the benefit of this house.

29.     We encourage employers to provide a family-friendly workplace, and have introduced several family leave enhancements over the last few years. While we are prepared to study the idea of senior care leave in consultation with tripartite partners, we should allow some time for businesses to adjust and adapt to the recent enhancements. 

30.     In the meantime, we will continue to work with tripartite partners to encourage employers to adopt family-friendly practices, including adopting the Tripartite Standard of Flexible Work Arrangements (FWAs), and better leveraging on the Worklife Grant.

Nurturing communities of care

31.     Sir, I agree with Ms Cheryl Chan that it is important to integrate housing for seniors within the community, and encourage strong family support.

32.     To foster community interaction, we now build 2-room Flexi flats in the same block as larger flat types for most projects. Under the Multi-Generation Priority Scheme (MGPS), married children and their parents are given priority if they apply for a pair of flats at the same level, block or BTO project. Those who wish to live as a multi-generational family can apply for 3Gen flats.

33.     Mr Henry Kwek made some thoughtful recommendations on retirement housing, while Mr Leon Pereira spoke about assisted living for seniors. We also agree with Dr Lily Neo that we should support our seniors to live independently in their homes and communities for as long as possible. 

34.     Our strategy to achieve this is to try to integrate the delivery of social and care services within our public housing estates, for  ease and convenience of our seniors. 

35.     Over the years, we have ramped up the introduction of eldercare facilities in our HDB estates.

36.     We have taken this one step further with Kampung Admiralty, where seniors living in and around the Kampung can obtain a continuum of social and health services at the Active Ageing Hub. 

37.     These services can support them as their needs evolve, and put off the need for premature institutionalisation in nursing homes or other facilities. There are plans to build another 10 more Active Ageing Hubs by 2020. 

38.     Mr Gan Thiam Poh will also be glad to know that we will continue working with MOH to explore new senior-friendly housing models, such as new forms of home and care options to allow seniors to age in a familiar environment and to remain independent for as long as possible. This includes assisted living developments that will help to expand the care and residential options available to seniors, by integrating senior-friendly housing and senior care services. This is currently under study and we will announce more details when ready.

39.     At the same time, we are studying measures which can better facilitate the development of private housing projects to support the needs of seniors. We are reviewing our Development Control guidelines to provide more clarity on retirement housing developments and we will share more information on these plans when ready. 

Strengthening community care and service delivery for vulnerable seniors

40.     Ms Rahayu Mahzam spoke about the need to support vulnerable seniors in our midst. This means empowering them to make choices to remain healthy, active and socially connected in their golden years, enabled collectively by the family, community and State. 

41.     On community support, we have expanded our network of social services supporting the low-income and vulnerable seniors, in close partnership with VWOs. 

42.     Since 2014, MSF has set up 19 Senior Cluster Networks (SCNs), operated by VWOs, to coordinate support for these seniors within each HDB town, with other social and healthcare agencies, including Social Service Offices (SSOs), Family Service Centres and the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC). 

43.     Through the SCNs, we have supported these low-income and vulnerable seniors to stay engaged in the community, prevent social isolation and receive timely and coordinated care. 

44.     The 69 Senior Activity Centres (SACs) outreach to around 30,000 seniors in public rental flats to engage them in recreation, to mitigate social isolation. Frail seniors with social and health needs are case-managed by social workers in the Cluster Support teams who coordinate care together with AIC. Senior Group Homes can support frail seniors who are suitable for communal living.

45.     Our network of 24 SSOs has also brought help closer to low-income and vulnerable seniors in the community. The SSOs play the important role of coordinating complex cases, which often involve multiple agencies and organisations. SSOs also plan and coordinate services at the local level, and manage MSF-funded regional services for families and seniors. 

46.     While social service delivery has improved over the years, we know that we can continue to do better. 

47.     Today, a family with multiple needs has to navigate different schemes, programmes, agencies and VWOs. We want to improve our inter-agency work processes to provide more integrated and holistic support for those in need. One of our key enablers will be the Community Network for Seniors (CNS), which is being piloted, which brings together healthcare and social agencies, and the community to provide support for seniors. 

48.     We can also improve data sharing and use, among Government agencies and with the community. This could reduce the need for clients to submit the same documents to different agencies and organisations multiple times. It also helps to harness the time, energy and skills of social service professionals and volunteers to better support our seniors. 

Planning ahead for seniors who have lost mental capacity

49.     Sir, some seniors lose their mental capacity as they age, due to dementia and other causes. Ms Cheryl Chan suggested improving the outreach and awareness of the Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA), by making certifiers of LPAs more easily accessible within the community. 

50.      Now, apart from lawyers and psychiatrists, there are currently 496 medical professionals who are accredited to be LPA certificate issuers. Many of them are GPs who operate in clinics in the heartlands.

51.     In addition, there are community services that provide regular legal clinics for both LPA as well as Will-Writing. An example is Life Point, started by Sheng Hong Welfare Services. It’s at Chinatown Point. It’s a popular one-stop service for seniors to make their LPAs. We welcome more organisations to start similar services to benefit our seniors. 

52.     If a person loses mental capacity without having made an LPA, their family members or friends may apply to court to be appointed as their deputy. But, we are aware that there are some individuals who may not have next-of-kin who can be appointed as a deputy, or, for that matter, even as a donee in making LPAs. 

53.     Therefore, MSF will be launching the Professional Deputies and Donees Scheme this year, where professionals can be remunerated for a fee to be appointed as professional donees and deputies.

54.     To support our ageing seniors who lack family support and experience declining mental capacity, we are also piloting a new initiative known as the Community Kin Service or Comm Kin Service. 

55.     Under this service, VWOs can apply for a Court Order to manage the senior’s money in order to meet the senior’s day-to-day needs. What they need to do is to prepare a care plan detailing the kinds of expenses that need to be incurred for their daily needs for these seniors and present it to court. Once they do they will act within the limits of the Court order.

56.     It thus empowers VWOs to do more to support seniors holistically within the community. Professional deputies can step in when the senior requires institutional care, to make more major decisions for the senior, such as liquidation of property, as their expertise would be better suited for such matters.  

57.     This Comm Kin pilot is expected to begin early this year with two VWOs –  TOUCH Community Services and AMKFSC Community Services.

58.     Nonetheless, we still encourage more Singaporeans to make an LPA. Because an LPA offers them choice and autonomy in deciding who they wish to appoint as their proxy decision maker, and gives peace of mind to the family, knowing that the necessary pre-planning has been done. 

PUTTING IN PLACE LAWS TO PROTECT VULNERABLE SENIORS

59.     Sir, another important aspect of preparing for a Nation for all Ages is enhancing our legislative framework for seniors. 

Reviewing the role and rebranding of TMP 

60.     Ms Rahayu Mahzam and Ms Chia Yong Yong asked us to review the role of the Tribunal of Maintenance of Parents (TMP). 

61.     The Maintenance of Parents Act (MPA) provides legal recourse for seniors 60 and above and who are unable to provide for themselves, to claim maintenance from their children.

62.     We recognise that some parents may be unwilling to file an application against their own children. So the Act therefore, allows the Commissioner to resolve issues through conciliation, without the need to commence legal proceedings at TMP. If the parent is unable to make an application himself for e.g. due to physical infirmity, the Commissioner is able to apply on behalf of the parent, with his consent. 

63.     Thus far, the Commissioner has not had to make such an application to the Tribunal on behalf of a parent, as most family members step up to help the parent. We will, however, continue to actively look into ways to lower the barriers for a senior to apply for maintenance, even as we seek to strengthen familial ties.

64.     Ms Chia Yong Yong also asked whether the Tribunal has ever ordered children, under section 6 of the MPA, to maintain their parents by setting up a trust fund to pay out regular maintenance. We have checked. Thus far, the Tribunal has not made such orders. Most orders have been by way of cash payment or cash support. 

65.     Currently, going beyond adjudication and mediation, the TMP may already refer a parent to Social Service Office for financial assistance and advice, if he is not awarded any maintenance, or if the maintenance awarded is insufficient to meet basic needs. The parent and the children may also be referred to an FSC for case management and counselling. So that in a way also addresses the point by Ms Rahayu Mahzam. She has suggested that the Tribunal take on more family counselling and mediation roles. These are better resolved at the FSCs.

66.     I thank members for their suggestions on legislative reviews and public education efforts, to enhance support and safeguards for our seniors, and promote family values on the care of our senior loved ones. Many suggestions have been given, including looking into the law of presumption of advancement. I think all these are things that we can study in the course of our work. 

Vulnerable Adults Act 

67.     Concurrently, it is imperative that we put in place safeguards to ensure that frail elderly and aging persons with disabilities are able to live in an environment that is free from abuse, neglect and self-neglect. 

68.     To that end, the Vulnerable Adults Bill – which will be introduced this year – will protect individuals 18 years old and above and, because of mental or physical infirmity, disability or incapacity, are unable to protect themselves from abuse, neglect or self-neglect. 

69.     To complement such legislation, MSF is also working with community partners and stakeholders to enhance the capacity and capabilities of critical players to respond to reports of abuse.

CONCLUSION: A NATION FOR ALL AGES

70.     Sir, Singapore is a rapidly greying society, by all existing trends and indicators. We should plan ahead, prepare well. Only then can we tap the opportunity that our silver generation brings and turn a perceived challenge into strength.

71.     Before I close, allow me to make very quick observations. Sir, we are encouraged that 6 members of this house, from PAP.SG, coming from different GPCs, have come together to raise this important motion and to bring debate to the house. 

72.     We are encouraged that all members who have spoken have given good ideas, given heartfelt examples of cases and individuals whom they have encountered. The motion has full support from all sides of this House. And while four of us have responded on behalf of a total of five Ministries, we are fully committed to working as a Whole-of-Government, to coordinate on seniors’ issues, to prepare ahead and prepare well and to implement effectively.  

73.     We will share more details of our plans at the upcoming Budget and Committee of Supply debates. At the end of the day, this has to be a whole-of-Singapore effort, involving families and communities, to make Singapore an inclusive and caring home that embraces all our seniors. ​​

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Published On Tue, Feb 6, 2018
Last Reviewed On Wed, Feb 7, 2018

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