Recently, for the very first time, I found myself in an old folk’s home. The home was situated in the heart of Klang Valley. I was there with members of the Kuala Lumpur Young Lawyers Committee (KLYLC). The purpose of our visit was to donate a sum of money to the home, along with food, furniture and a token for each of the residents. The money was collected from a charity fund-raising event held last year.

Thus particular home was big and spacious. They received some monies from the Welfare Department, but not enough to cover their costs. As such, they relied on donations and contributions from individuals and corporations to sustain them. Thankfully, enough good Samaritans have donated and contributed to them thus far. The home has also been blessed with patrons and caretakers who are genuinely passionate and care about the home and its residents.

There were about 50 residents living in the home. All of them are 60 years old or more. They are divided into several rooms with 12 to 15 persons in each room. The rooms were not big. The beds for them were arranged in a row. Next to the beds, each person would have a shelf to place his or her belongings.

When we visited the residents in the rooms, we were greeted with smiling faces of gratitude and happiness. They spoke to us in Malay or Chinese, so when I heard one of them speaking to me in English, it piqued my curiosity enough to strike a conversation with the speaker.

The English speaker was an old woman. Compared to the other residents, she was rather plump and not as frail as the others. It was difficult for her to walk as her legs were weak. She had surgery in her right leg and she told me that she needed surgery for her left leg too.

I asked her whether she learned English formally. She told me that apart from some classes she had in a vernacular school way back when she was younger; her English was learned through decades of interaction. She lamented her lack of proficiency, saying that she speaks ‘broken English’. To this, I replied that her English was fine. In fact, I told her that I know of some practicing lawyers who cannot even speak the language.

I found out that at 72, she was one of the younger members of the home. Some of the other residents are well into their 90s.

She is also one of the longest residents of the home as she has been there for the past 7 years.

Before this, she owned a restaurant business when she was in her 20s and 30s, but in her own words, her business went ‘bankrupt’. She then continued working in restaurants.

She spoke of her daily routine. She would wake up at 5.30 am and assist the workers to prepare food, even though it was never asked of her.

She does not feel comfortable being fed without working, she says. Breakfast would be a few hours after that, followed by lunch at noon, dinner in the evening and supper at night. In between, she would fill her time by reading the day’s newspaper (that she purchased every day as she wants to read it in the comfort of her own bed) and watching television. Due to her physical condition, she could not participate in the physical activities such as morning exercises that other residents participated in.

Apart from this, there was nothing else for her to do to pass the time. Her life was a routine, like mine. But that is where the similarities end. Her life is simple; her belongings are nothing more than what she has on her bed and in the shelf next to the bed. The bare essentials are all she needs.

I thought to myself, could I ever live a life like this? If it was decided by fate that I was to spend my life an old folk’s home, would I be able to endure a routine like hers, where life comprised of meals and little else in between.

She did not speak of her family, except to say that she never knew who her parents were.

She was left alone to fend for herself and as far as she could remember, she was alone. Somehow, she managed to survive.

I wanted to ask more about her family, but I was afraid to invoke memories.

Surely, I told myself, if she had a family that cared for her, she would not end up in an old folk’s home.

For even though it was a decent, an old folk’s home is still an old folk’s home, as I found out from my conversation with the old woman. These men and women lived the past, they are the blood, the sweat and the tears of that made this nation what it is.

Yet once we no longer deem them useful to our society, we store them away and we try to forget about them.

We relive the bygone in our celebrations and the pages of our history books, yet we discard these living monuments of the past.

The old woman spoke of death. She spoke of how people die all the time in the place. People die, and new people come in.

She expressed her fears of death yet she spoke of it as a matter of fact.

“Here we wait to die.”

That is the reality of it. How they choose to wait for it depends on them. They can live the remainder of their lives fully or they can fill simply live their life longing for it.

But the fact of the matter is that these old men and women stay there until it is time for them to leave.

*this article was published exclusively for The Star’s iPad application on 31 May 2011 for my fortnightly colum, ‘A Humble Submission’.