‘Am I Old?’ asks stand-up comedian Sharul Channa in monologue about ageing

Source: @thesharulchanna / Instagram
Source: @thesharulchanna / Instagram

This week, Sharul Channa’s comedic act, Am I Old? returns to the Drama Centre in Singapore on 24 April for a single show. As part of Ms Channa’s collaboration with AWARE, the 45-minute monologue will be followed by a panel discussion attended by Member of Parliament Carrie Tan among others, as well as AWARE’s Head of Research and Advocacy Shailey Hingorani, whose 2019 eldercare report built the foundation of research for the act. TheHomeGround Asia sat down with Ms Channa, to talk about her upcoming comedic monologue about an elderly female caregiver.

According to the Populations Trends 2020 report by the Singapore Department of Statistics, the average life expectancy at birth for residents has risen from 81.4 years in 2009 to 83.6 years in 2019. Females continue to have a longer life expectancy than males, with a difference of 4.3 years in 2019. With an ageing population comes the problems of a sandwich generation (faces the financial burden of caring for their children and elderly parents), and single individuals are often left with the responsibility of caring for the elderly in their family.

To raise awareness about ageing and caregiving, local comedian Sharul Channa has collaborated with women’s rights group AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research), to create a documentary theatre piece about the struggles of ageing and caregiving. The monologue was first staged at the Drama Centre Black Box last March, before going digital during Singapore’s lockdown, with six virtual sessions conducted over Zoom in April 2020. Now that live performances are permitted, Ms Channa’s comedic act, Am I Old? returns to the Drama Centre this week for a single show.

Poster for Am I Old? (Source: @thesharulchanna / Instagram)

Working with AWARE

Sharul Channa is not an unfamiliar name in the stand-up comedy scene. After all, she was the very first Singaporean comic to be invited to perform at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the world’s third-largest international comedy festival, in 2016. Her solo shows and  collaborations with her husband, fellow comic Rishi Budhrani, have also been warmly received by both local and international audiences.

Having achieved success as a local comedian, with regular shows and a steady following, Ms Channa wanted to find greater purpose in her work.

“Stand-up is a beautiful art form,” she notes. “But it’s also very self-sufficient. And after a while, I think there comes a moment where you want to use your talents to do something more to help the community.”

Ms Channa, a Lasalle College of the Arts theatre graduate adds, “I have an acting background,  and I wanted to use it to make a difference in society, I really wanted to do something different.”

Comedian Sharul Channa in full costume and make-up for 45-minute stand-up act, Am I Old?. (Source: Connected to India)

So when AWARE approached Ms Channa with their 2019 Report, Make Care Count, she agreed, with great enthusiasm, to collaborate with them on the project.

To prepare for the role, AWARE put Ms Channa in touch with caregivers, to interview them about their daily routines. She also spoke to managers at an ageing centre to find out what it takes to run a facility for the elderly, to understand them and the changes they go through. Furthermore, the Make Care Count report’s qualitative interviews of various profiles and beneficiaries provided the basis for her research as she carefully constructed her script. The result of this collaboration was Am I Old?, a documentary theatre piece that sheds light on the experiences of the elderly and caregivers in Singapore. 

Stepping into the shoes of a character twice her age, Ms Channa performs the role of Savitri Channa, a 68-year-old Singaporean retired school teacher, who looks for something exciting to do after her mother’s death. Armed with nothing but her Passion Card and her Pioneer Generation Package, Savitri tries performing stand-up comedy for the first time, hitting audiences with her best punchlines about unrequited love, being a caregiver and coming to terms with age.

The Struggles of Caregivers

Apart from interviews with caregivers, Am I Old? was also inspired by Ms Channa’s personal experiences. The protagonist Savitri is named after her paternal grandmother, who was a caregiver to her husband, cancer-stricken daughter and took care of her granddaughter, who was left behind after her daughter’s passing.

Through her late grandmother’s diary entries, Ms Channa takes a peek into her grandmother’s perspective of struggling as a caregiver for her family: “I watched her take care of three generations in my family, the old the sick and the young,” says Ms Channa, expressing her deep admiration and respect for her grandmother. “And this was my way of saying ‘thank you’ for taking care of these people when she was already in the elderly bracket.”

AWARE’s 2019 eldercare research report Make Care Count found that caregiving often falls on unmarried women, with the responsibility of caregiving unevenly distributed among siblings. (Source: Association of Women for Action and Research)

According to AWARE’s Make Care Count report, the average caregiver is unmarried, female, aged 55-65, with no occupation. Ms Channa notes that it often falls solely on the single women in the family to take care of the elderly, even though they are not the only child.

Earlier in February this year, Carrie Tan, Member of Parliament for Nee Soon Group Representation Constituency, proposed a new income-support scheme for full-time caregivers. Ms Tan noted the importance of providing sufficient support for caregivers – most of whom are women – who will be displaced from the workforce due to the ageing population and the rising needs of eldercare.

In support of Ms Tan’s proposed scheme, Ms Channa highlights the problem that most caregivers face: “Your priority as a caregiver is the person you are caring for. By the time the caregiver can go back to work, they would be in the elderly bracket, and would not be able to return to their nine-to-five jobs.”

With Am I Old?, Ms Channa hopes to raise awareness about the process of ageing and retirement, and the need for greater support to be given to caregivers in Singapore, from both a state and a personal level. 

Inspiring Difficult Conversations

When asked what she hopes her audience will take away from her performance, Ms Channa says that she would like to inspire difficult but necessary conversations between parents and their children about retirement plans, especially if the children are between the ages of 30 and 50.

“We are moving rapidly towards a community where the burden of caregiving, and the financial burden, is going to be on the younger generation,” says Ms Channa, who turns 35 this year. “Instead of sweeping it under the rug, and waiting to have this conversation, I want children to discuss with their parents and figure out how they are going to manage our parents’ retirement, as well as their own.”

As for her stand-up acts being a platform for her to affect change, Ms Channa shares that she seeks to educate her audience on the cause she is fighting for: “The more people see the problem, the more they connect with them, the more they want to know. I think the best thing you can do for people, is to make them aware.”

Am I Old? plays at the Drama Centre on 24 April at 8pm. Tickets are available here.

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