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Old and bold, this 85-year-old dynamo is a role model for living a longer, fuller life

Old and bold, this 85-year-old dynamo is a role model for living a longer, fuller life

Published on

24 Dec 2022

Published by

The Straits Times

Go-getter Ratnam Periowsamy, a tech-savvy, friend-making public speaker, is inspiring this director of a longevity centre to rewrite the next chapter of her life.


Susana Concordo Harding


Once dreaded, there’s much more to look forward to these days in growing old, whether it is a lifetime away or retirement is knocking on your door. 


With medical advances, improved lifestyle factors and support in pursuit of the good life, more of us will live longer with more years in reasonable health. The Ministry of Health’s newly minted Healthier SG strategy is an exciting step in this direction.


Outlined in a White Paper released in September, it aims to get family doctors to help individuals lead healthier lives. Then there’s the plethora of articles and documentaries about the 100-year life, sparked by a self-help book about working and living in the age of longevity.


While all these developments are heartening, it’s the real people I meet through my work who have been the needle-movers shaping my mindset and motivating me in planning for the next chapter of my life.


At 54 and satisfied with my career achievements, the time has come to shift gears. Married for 12 years, I look forward to spending even more time with my family, husband and stepson, as well as my siblings and close friends. I also want to think about going back to school and picking up interests left on the backburner while I had focused on establishing my career in the last three decades.


One senior in particular who has inspired me is 85-year-old Ratnam Periowsamy. A resident of Whampoa, I got to know Madam Ratnam about a decade ago, when Tsao Foundation first ventured into the neighbourhood and introduced the concept of Community for Successful Ageing (ComSA) – an integrated system of comprehensive programmes and services aimed at promoting health and well-being over the life course, and to enable ageing in place. 


The former teacher, who, with her twinkly eyes and pearly whites, is immediately engaging, possesses an insatiable appetite to learn and try new things. From public-speaking engagements locally and internationally, to being tech-savvy in using new apps and making new connections, she makes the most of every day.


Inspired by Madam Ratnam, I recently found myself wondering: When should I go back to school to pursue my PhD studies in public health? What second career can I embark on to tap my interest areas – teaching, retail, caregiving? What about volunteering? These are the questions my husband and I have been thinking about mid-way through life in our 50s. 


A bright future from 70


Madam Ratnam, whose husband passed away more than 20 years ago, has five children. She lives on her own in Whampoa, but during the last two pandemic years, shuttled between her home and her youngest son’s house in nearby Toa Payoh.


She is also an ardent supporter of our local programmes. She is a community advocate for Whampoa seniors and a role model of what it means to “seize the opportunities in longevity”. 


In June 2022, as the English-speaking emcee, Madam Ratnam hosted an event attended by over 200 people at Whampoa Community Club celebrating the launch of ComSA Club – a “Club Med” for seniors to engage in social and sporting engagements, but also with purpose, contributing productively to the community they live in. 


At the launch, Madam Ratnam confidently welcomed guests of honour, including the constituency’s MP Heng Chee How, National Council of Social Service deputy chief executive officer Seah Yang Hee and Tsao Foundation CEO Say Kwee Neng, to the stage. 


Just weeks later, Madam Ratnam was part of the Tsao Foundation group travelling to Bangkok to attend a United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific event where she represented Singapore.


At the gathering, she shared the stage with older people from Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Nepal and Vietnam among others at the concurrently held Asia-Pacific Intergovernmental Meeting on the fourth review and appraisal of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing. Madam Ratnam and her peers were excited and honoured to be part of the event, where their lived experiences, aspirations and challenges were heard. 


Madam Ratnam shared the challenges of seniors in Singapore and Whampoa, and urged companies, policymakers and individuals to take the time to listen and respond to the voices of the older generation. She gave a shout-out to “young people” – those in their 50s – to act immediately in planning for old age, so they have a longer runway to build up wealth, health and happiness to enjoy a bright future at 70. 


New friendships at 80 


Can we make new connections in our golden years? Madam Ratnam paves the way here too. She befriended Madam Theresa Tan, in her 80s, having met her through our programmes designed to empower seniors with skills and resources to take charge of their lives. They met, clicked, and became good friends. 


Madam Ratnam encouraged a shy Madam Theresa to appear in a video to help advocate for seniors to be masters of their own lives regardless of their age. She also helped her friend wear a sari for a Deepavali party held at our community cafe in Whampoa Community Club and understand Indian culture better. 


Today the “BFFs” are a common sight in Whampoa where the duo meet for kaya toast and kopi in the mornings to exchange news and life hacks in their golden years. Good friends, plus good health, can add abundant life to our years. 


New tech at 85


Thanks to the continual efforts of the Infocomm Media Development Authority and Agency for Integrated Care, more seniors in Singapore are embracing technology and going digital. They pay bills, shop, learn, are entertained and most importantly, stay connected to family and friends with their mobile phones.


Madam Ratnam is once again a first-mover in this space. When asked by an immigration officer for her vaccination information at the Bangkok airport this July, Madam Ratnam casually whipped out her mobile phone, retrieved a QR code and dutifully showed it to him. The rest of our colleagues from Tsao Foundation travelling with her – all younger and in their 20s to 60s, tech-savvy and well-travelled – stared half in amusement and half in embarrassment, for all of us had printed out our vaccination information. 


Madam Ratnam too lives and engages others online. The Facebook app is one she accesses frequently, making her the “top fan” of Tsao Foundation’s Facebook page, offering “likes” and encouraging comments in our posts. Her WhatsApp profile reflects this life motto of hers: “To move forward with courage and love”. 


A 100-year-old life


It was my mother’s wish to live to 120. While it did not materialise for her after her departure at 85, I stand a good chance of doing so. 


According to the Singapore Department of Statistics, life expectancy today has edged up to 83.5 years. For men, it is 81.1, for women, 85.9 – one of the highest in the world. 


With this gift of a longer life, we must think differently from the generations before us, about what to do with our finances, our education, our career and our relationships to succeed in creating a fulfilling 100-year life. 


The Healthier SG strategy tells us that preventive health is an important part of this puzzle in wanting to live long and live well. But what does living well look like? 


My social media feed shouts about 70-year-olds who are still running marathons – Yuichiro Miura at almost 81 climbed Mount Everest. Singapore’s oldest person and one of Asia’s most inspirational social workers Teresa Hsu started studying nursing at 47, and later founded the non-profit Heart to Heart Service, which provides food and financial help for needy families, and the Home for the Aged Sick in Singapore before her death at 113. 


Mrs Tsao Ng Yu Shun, having lived among older relatives to whom she was also caregiver, empathised deeply with those growing old with little recourse for help. At 86, she established the Tsao Foundation in Singapore to help seniors lead gratifying lives by providing them with the care, support and opportunities to participate in community activities.


These women have taught me an important lesson: to stay vibrant, independent and active so we can continue to contribute to society. 


They have also made me certain of this truth: that life does not end when retirement draws closer. Instead, a new chapter unfolds that calls us to adventure.


  • Susana Concordo Harding is senior director, International Longevity Centre Singapore, at the Tsao Foundation, a non-profit organisation.



Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.


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