If this man had a social media account, his description may not be that different from the others: Introverted coffee fiend who likes music and long walks.
Perhaps he would also add this surefire conversation-starter: Used to reside in a cemetery.
But Mr Kuchot bin Awal, an elderly gentleman born in 1934, does not have an online profile or care for one. What he cares about, he told Yahoo! Singapore in a two-hour interview, is enjoying his time one day at a time.
This belief in cherishing the small things in life could be why the frail-looking man with weathered skin could live in a tent in a cemetery in Kallang and see it as home.
The 79-year-old was there for an undeterminable period -- long enough for some nearby office workers to take notice. They put him on a ‘coffee boy’ payroll, his case file states, with an unofficial salary coming out from their company's petty cash fund and their own pockets.
Mr Kuchot was first admitted to Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) in 2007. For the next two years, he had several falls and dehydration episodes that led to him going in and out of TTSH. Social workers were unsuccessful in rehoming him, as he was resistant to the idea of a home for the elderly.
Finally, in 2009, after a particularly nasty fall and the National Environment Agency and Housing Development Board stepping in to evict him, he agreed to take a look at Asian Women’s Welfare Association (AWWA) Community Home for Senior Citizens.
Jigsaw puzzle past
It took much effort to pry his back story from him, and even today, Mr Kuchot’s history remains murky.
According to records, he was staying with a friend in a rental flat for years, but was asked to leave when that friend got married. After that, he slept in hawker centres, parks and other public areas before settling down in the cemetery.
There, he was undisturbed, said Ms P. Vijayah, the case manger of the community home who reviewed his case. Passers-by closed an eye when they noticed him and his makeshift residence, as he seemed old and harmless. They sometimes gave him a dollar or two, which he would spend on food.
In his mind, a sheltered home was akin to a prison. He wanted his freedom, even if it was at the expense of warm meals and a bed.
It took much persuasion and that hospitalisation stint before a social worker convinced him to give AWWA Community Home, his home for the last four years, a try.
Slowly, a place of his own
The home operates much like a rental flat system, but it is free of charge. It comprises 51 one-room units — each equipped with a kitchen and a toilet -- that span three levels of a innocuous-looking HDB block. Meals are sponsored a couple of times a week. Beneficiaries of the home are also given a food allowance, doled out monthly, weekly or daily, depending on their spending habits.
Nearby, there is a McDonald’s outlet, a mosque, and Ang Mo Kio hub is just a 10-minute walk away. It is like any other neighbourhood. The higher floors house regular occupants.
Residents in the community home are placed three to a room, and are free to spend their time however they wish, as long as they adhere to a 10pm curfew.
Some of them work, returning only late at night. Some hang out at the recreational room. Others go for walks around the neighborhood. Mr Kuchot is one of them. He heads to a nearby coffee shop every morning. He cannot do without his coffee and “it has to have sugar, it makes no sense to drink it unsweetened”, he said. There are enough bitter things in life and coffee should not be one of them, he added.
Mr Kuchot’s memory is not too good. Most days, he goes around asking which day of the week it is. Sometimes, he seems disoriented and reserved.
Just a few months ago, perhaps plagued by times when he did not have regular meals or pocket money, he scrimped together about $300 from the humble sum he receives from the Home, Ms Vijayah recounts. It is considered a huge amount, and they later realised he had skipped meals to save up — he had a fainting spell as a result.
“We had to assure him that if his money runs out, we will top it up, we won’t let him starve. We told him not to worry, that he will be taken care of here,” she said.
These homes give the elderly more autonomy than nursing homes. For example, they are encourage them to sort out their own meals and laundry arrangements. Folks staying here feel a sense of belonging to a community.
Ms Vijayah has been with the home for 28 years. A nurse by training, she thought it would be interesting to work there temporarily, but it became decades.
“It’s heartwarming, to see how Mr Kuchot has changed during his time here,” she said. “He used to be so isolated and lonely. Now, he has friends, and he smiles and jokes with us on his good days.”
Still, it is not all sunshine.
“It’s a very tough job, deciding which is the case who is worst-off, which is the case who will get a bed once it empties out,” she said.
There is a long waitlist, she said. Just that afternoon, she had to meet with four interviewees for one bed space.
Sometimes, there is a space when a resident passes on. Other times, when the residents there are no longer capable of living independently, they have to go to a nursing home.
“I hate seeing my old folks being sent to a nursing home,” she said. “It’s the worst, seeing them becoming weaker.”
Mr Kuchot, too, knows of losses to a nursing home.
He used to have a little gang of friends, “the three musketeers”, the caretakers called them. As the health of one of them deteriorated, the level of care the community home could provide was no longer sufficient. Now, it is just Mr Kuchot and another friend, Mr Osman bin Ameng.
“It’s not bad here, I guess. There’s food and coffee and ‘Suria’ to watch. I will probably spend the rest of my days here,” Mr Kuchot said.
The beneficiary and Voluntary Welfare Organisation featured in this article has been assisted by the National Council of Social Service and Community Chest.
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