Household chores, errands, and caregiving are all in a day’s work for Saripah Bte Ali, who lives in a rental flat with her two older sisters, Halimah Bte Ali and Fatmah Bte Ali, aged 66 and 69 respectively. As the youngest and savviest of the trio, she has taken up the responsibility as the head of the household. It is no easy task; aside from domestic duties, the 64-year-old also cares for one of her sisters who require special attention due to her mobility issues.
“[I] bring them to [the] clinic, to market, all me. They cannot move around. Sometimes, I bring them downstairs to exercise. Now cannot, so we do upstairs [at their apartment] using Zoom,” she shares.
Despite her struggles, Mdm Saripah maintains a jolly disposition. When speaking with TheHomeGround Asia via a Zoom call due to phase 2 (heightened alert) measures, Mdm Sapirah greets us with a toothy grin. It is a smile that stays on throughout our conversation, even as challenges in communication arise from the language barrier.
Her demeanour revealed no hints of her humble upbringing running a canteen stall with her family, or to the challenges she now faces as the main caregiver to her two older sisters. In fact, she scarcely alludes to the difficulties she encounters, waving off related queries with a laugh: “I don’t want to do very sad sad again, no use, old already!”
She adds, “The no good one, don’t need to share. I don’t want to remember because [I am] 64 already. Now, I just want to be happy.”
And happy memories and moments, she has plenty of.
A humble childhood inspiring her love for cooking
After graduating in 1974, Mdm Saripah joined her father to run his canteen stall within a police post: “All I sell, rice, briyani, chicken rice – all I cook… I have to cook on four or five stoves.”
She will stay here for over 20 years, even after her father has passed on, continuing to run the stall with her two sisters. They only vacated the canteen stall when the building they were operating in was closing down, and she was eventually invited by a friend to cook at a different canteen.
When her mother developed Alzheimer’s disease, she left her then job to become the primary caregiver, which she now continues to be for her two sisters.
Growing up around cooking and food has ingrained a love for the activity deeply within Mdm Saripah; it is a hobby she continues to enjoy today, and now serves as a way for her to show love to the people around her.
“On my birthday, I also cook! Last year, I cooked pulut kuning with rendang, I gave to my friends. Last Eid al-Adha, Hari Raya, I cooked nasi hujan panas. I gave some [to my] friends here [at the rental block],” she shares.
“Sometimes, they all bring [ingredients] for me,” she adds. “Fish la, prawn la, and then I cook, and I give them back! Share share!”
While food continues to serve as a vital part of her life, Mdm Saripah acknowledges that in old age, she requires more help than she used to: “Now I cannot work, I’m 64 already, my leg pain.”
She is thus appreciative of the assistance rendered to her by non-profit organisations, in their provision of food to her family. This has included necessities like rice and groceries from Food Bank Singapore, to the occasional treat like durian, or even cakes on her birthday.
Though retired and leading a simple life with her two sisters, Mdm Saripah continues to lead an active lifestyle, and regularly interacts with her neighbours through community activities organised by non-profit groups such as Care Corner.
But she was not always able to lead the life she does now, she shares. In 2011, Mdm Saripah was forced to move to Malaysia, where she stayed in Kuala Lumpur with her sisters before returning to Singapore in 2020 when the pandemic hit.
It was an unfortunate situation forced by circumstance, she explains. They had sold their house, and were unable to purchase another one.
“[I was] very disappointed,” she says. “Had to run there [to Malaysia]. [It was] very, very difficult. You have to rent a car. Five hours to get from Singapore to KL [Kuala Lumpur], very tired.”
She continues, “We had to sell all my things, just bring the clothes only.”
Loving her home country, wherever she lives
Mdm Saripah may have been forced to leave her home country for eight years, but she declares that she is still a proud Singaporean at heart, and is more than happy to be home.
“My mother from here, my father from Johor [Bahru], but citizen here. We [her and her sisters] like it here. Everything we want, we can get,” she says. “Now, we have a house. Even though it is rented, but very happy la. Easy for me to take care of my sisters, to go to the doctor.”
Reminiscing the days of the past, she expresses that Singapore has changed rapidly over the years: “You see, Malaysia, still can see kampung. In Singapore, where got? Now, only one kampung.”
“Sometimes, [I miss it],” she says. “Can see rambutan tree, durian tree. Last time, we went to Muar, Johor [to see]. My father was from there. But now, my passport expired already, cannot go anywhere.”
Nevertheless, Mdm Saripah believes that the change has been good: “I like [that Singapore] is very clean! In Malaysia, sometimes, they throw bottles on the road. Singapore, no. I am very proud of that.”
Her pride and love for the nation is most clearly demonstrated during National Day, where she religiously watches the annual National Day Parade: “I like to see their dance very much. [It] changes every year, the song [also] changes every year. That one, I love very much.”
In a country with an increasingly silver population, Mdm Saripah’s positive outlook on life paints a picture of what positive ageing can be like in Singapore.
Based on the 2020 Population Census, elderly residents (aged 65 and above) make up 15.2 per cent of the resident population in Singapore, up from a mere nine per cent a decade ago. This number is only expected to rise. By 2030, the elderly population is expected to make up nearly one in four of the resident population.
With this comes increasing concerns of how to best ensure that the silver generation can continue to be supported and age in place. This is especially so for the most vulnerable in the community, who may face loneliness and an elevated risk of poor health.
But Mdm Saripah is bucking this trend with her resilience and stubborn optimism. Though she may not be living out her golden years in luxury, she is certainly revelling in the simplicity of life, with the company of her two sisters, and the support of her self-made kampung.