The article first appeared in the Singapore Sunday Times on September 27, 1997.
Last Sunday was World Alzheimer Day, a day set aside to mark universal efforts to deal with the debilitating disease. On the same day, representatives of 26 charities were at the Singapore Turf Club in Bukit Timah, to receive their share of a $1 million donation from the club. Among the 26 to receive their cheques from President Ong Teng Cheong was Dr Oon Chiew Seng, who has done much in recent times to raise awareness of the problems posed by the illness in Singapore.
Dr Oon, 81, was there on behalf of the Apex Harmony Lodge, the first home (to be ready in 1999) here to cater to the needs of dementia patients. Alzheimer is a form of dementia, a brain disorder which not only robs the sufferers of their mental faculties, but also imposes a tremendous burden of care on the family.
Dementia leads to a gradual deterioration of memory and intellect and impairs judgement and speech. It is not part of normal ageing. There are about 5,000 dementia patients in Singapore. With a fast greying population, the number is expected to increase to 19,000 by the year 2030.
Dr Oon, a retired gynaecologist, who graduated from KIng Edward VII College of Medicine in 1948, has been the main driving force behind the lodge project.
“It wasn’t an impulsive decision. I had always wanted to play my part but was prevented from doing so because of my demanding and hectic schedules as a doctor,” she explained.
Dr Oon is no stranger to community work. She first came face to face with the stark realities of the poor when she was doing clinical work at Lady Harding Hospital , New Delhi, in 1944. Her medical studies in Singapore were interrupted by World War II which forced her to do some of her studies in India.
“Patients at the antenatal clinics were so anaemic and undernourished that a fellow student and I collected fresh vegetables from the professors’ gardens and pooled our own meagre resources to buy milk for them,” she said.
She felt she had to do something to help the needy. In the mid-1980s she was invited to sit on the medical advisory committee of the Sree Narayana Mission Home for the aged sick. There she realised that Singapore needed more such homes for its ageing population.
When the home launched a fundraising campaign, Dr Oon was persuaded to play a leading role in view of her professional standing and wide circle of influential friends. She accepted the challenge.
To her pleasant surprise, many of the corporations and friends she approached reacted generously, considering that Singapore was emerging from its worst recession since the 1950s. Within a year, she had raised $3 million. She also involved herself in the activities of the Apex Clubs of Singapore. Impressed by their contributions to the community, she accepted their invitation to be patron of their Bukit Timah club.
In 1993, she approached the Ministry of Health to persuade it to build a home for the aged sick, under Apex management. The ministry replied that nine such homes were in the pipeline and they would adequately serve the needs of the target groups. Instead the ministry encouraged her to embark on a dementia home project, which Singapore lacked. Nursing and old age homes have often been unwilling to admit dementia patients as they have been more difficult to manage. The Government was prepared to contribute substantially to the dementia project and bear part of the annual operating costs on an ongoing basis.
As she was not too familiar with the problems of dementia, she asked for more time to consider the ministry’s suggestion. In late 1993, Dr Oon travelled to Australia where she visited 16 dementia homes to gain a better insight into their operations. She came back convinced that Apex could manage such a project. The dementia home would cost $18 million and Apex would have to raise at least $1.8 million before the government would provide the rest and the land.
The Apex Harmony Lodge was registered in 1995, and a committee with Dr Oon as chairman and members drawn from both public and private sectors, was formed to raise funds. The committee has now raised the $1.8 million to qualify for a government grant for the remainder of the approved building and equipment costs. The three-storey home is in Pasir Ris and occupies a 6,400 sq m plot. Its facilities include a day care centre for 50 patients, seven wards for 210 live-in patients and living quarters for foreign staff
Donations to the home, which will be tax-exempt, should be sent to:
The Honorary Treasurer
Apex Harmony Lodge
9, Nathan Rd, Block 9 #23-01, Regency park
Lam Pin Foo
Latest update on Dr Oon’s later contributions on the research and new approaches for dementia care of elderly with Alzeimer’s disease in Singapore.