AS a person ages and grows frailer and more dependent in their senior years, they would often need to rely on receiving care and assistance from their children or family members.
There are also some who may opt for formal care systems such as residential care homes or domiciliary services.
However, unfortunately, not everyone has family to turn to or the means to afford private care services, which usually come with a hefty price tag.
For such individuals, there is Rumah Seri Kenangan (RSK), a government-run institution for the elderly.
RSK, which is under the jurisdiction of the Social Welfare Department, was established with the aim of providing care and protection to poor senior citizens so that they can live in peace and enjoy good quality of life.
In contrast with the negative perception and wariness that the public often attaches to such institutions, New Sarawak Tribune during a recent visit to RSK Kuching observed that the centre and its elderly inhabitants were certainly in good hands.
Even though the centre has been temporarily occupying the Rehabilitation Centre in Samarahan for quite some time, the team has made do and kept the place clean, organised, and with a pleasant environment.
It is evident that the team managing the institution has their residents’ interests and wellbeing at heart, with proper systems and facilities in place to address their needs as well as activities organised to uplift their spirits.
On top of this, with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the staff members at the centre have adapted well in order to keep their elderly occupants safe.
On the whole, RSK Kuching is indeed a haven for the needy and vulnerable elderly who have no one to turn to in their sunset years. There, the poor elderly receive care, shelter, and companionship.
In a recent interview, Dr Sidiah John Siop, Senior Fellow at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak’s (Unimas) Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, said that the elderly at RSK were very much well-cared for, noting that there were nurses stationed there to look after the daily needs of the residents.
“The criteria for admission into RSK are that the applicant has to be destitute, aged 60 years and over, without any communicable diseases, and without family or carers.
“They need to be able to carry out activities of daily living independently when they are enrolled or admitted into RSK,” said Sidiah, who is also a registered nurse with a PhD in Gerontology.
She explained that as the residents aged, they would require greater supervision and assistance. As such, she said the employees at RSK Kuching would be able to address these needs and look after the residents.
Residents and staff
During the visit, New Sarawak Tribune had the opportunity to gain more insight by speaking to Peter Gabong, who heads RSK Kuching.
According to him, RSK Kuching currently houses 58 residents. He said, unfortunately, a number of residents had passed away in the past few months due to old age and other illnesses.
“But so far, none have passed away due to Covid-19,” he clarified.
He said the conditions of the residents varied widely; some still had a sharp mind and were able to carry out their activities quite independently while others required more assistance.
“However, some of them are bedridden or have difficulty moving. Some have dementia setting in, so if they were to walk out of the centre, they would not remember how to get back. Some of them cannot communicate properly, so they are unable to fend for themselves,” he observed.
He thus stressed that these elderly people were vulnerable and truly needed help.
“Our staff members work in shifts to take care of our residents, including taking care of their prescriptions, medications, and vaccinations,” he said.
As for check-up appointments or cases of illness, he explained that the residents would be brought to health facilities such as Sarawak General Hospital and Rajah Charles Brooke Memorial Hospital.
Peter said RSK Kuching often had occupational therapy sessions and activities such as handicrafts and simple games to keep the seniors occupied.
“Usually, every week, we would have our ‘Zumba’ or ‘poco-poco’ dance sessions in the open space,” he said.
He said from time to time, the staff members also set up movie screenings to entertain the centre’s residents.
Aside from this, he added that regular outings used to be organised for the elderly inhabitants before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Adapting activities due to pandemic
Just like every other sector, the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic has impacted RSK Kuching.
Most notably, some of the regular activities – mainly visits and outings — have had to be halted in the interest of the residents’ health and safety.
“Since the start of the pandemic last year, we have been stopping people from coming into our centre, especially if they want to visit our residents,” said Peter.
He said that while the majority of residents at RSK Kuching had no close relatives, some did, although these relatives were incapable of looking after them. Nevertheless, he said prior to the pandemic, these relatives would sometimes visit their elderly relatives at the centre.
“Unless it is very urgent, we really do not want anybody to come inside at this time because of the risk and uncertainty — we do not know what they are bringing in.
“During visits with family members, there would often be close physical contact and conversing, so it’s better if we totally do not allow visits at this time to be safe,” he said.
In addition, he said RSK Kuching had stopped organising regular outings for their occupants, including trips to the cinema, bowling alley, or coffeeshops.
“We usually would also have non-governmental organisations (NGOs), volunteers, visitors, and well-wishers who would come and take our residents for outings, but this has been stopped for the time being,” he said.
For example, he said large corporations such as Sarawak Economic Development Corporation (SEDC) had previously made contributions to the centre or brought the elderly residents for outings before the pandemic, as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme.
“We have other organisations and associations which would normally come during the festive season. Prior to the pandemic, we never rejected any visits,” he said.
Peter welcomed such initiatives in normal times, encouraging people to write in if they wished to make an arrangement.
However, he stated that at this time, if RSK Kuching received visits from outsiders at all, it would be a brief affair whereby the visitors would just come to hand over contributions for the centre and its residents.
“We do not allow them to enter our dormitories or wards because we are quite fearful. As you know, our residents are elderly and very vulnerable,” he said.
Through these precautions, thus far, the centre has been successful at keeping Covid-19 at bay.
“We always stay mindful. Our residents and staff members have previously undergone Covid-19 screening twice since the onset of the pandemic, just to make sure that everybody is free of Covid-19,” he said.
Being aware of the risks
Even though the elderly residents at RSK Kuching are in somewhat of a bubble by not receiving visitors or leaving the centre during the Covid-19 pandemic, there is still an element of risk as most of the centre’s staff members live in their respective homes outside the facility.
“It is important to be safe and protected, especially seeing that, due to the residential nature of our centre and the way we handle and care for our residents, it involves a lot of physical contact,” emphasised Peter.
He pointed out that some of the nurses at RSK Kuching had had to undergo quarantine or lockdowns.
“Once we are aware of such cases, I would always advise our staff members not to come to RSK Kuching for the time being but instead to get tested first. If they are confirmed as negative for Covid-19, then we feel safer and we can keep our residents safe too,” he said.
He said the elderly residents at the centre had undergone their second dose of the Covid-19 vaccination on Aug 6. This therefore provided a level of protection and some peace of mind.
He added that they had thankfully not experienced any severe side effects from the vaccination.
“Our staff members also received their vaccinations earlier on,” he noted.
New centre, new hope
When it comes to residential eldercare services, it is vital to provide a proper centre with a range of facilities. With the new RSK Kuching centre, Peter has high hopes for this aim to be achieved.
He shared that RSK Kuching and its elderly residents had moved to their temporary abode at the Rehabilitation Centre in Samarahan back in 2012 after the old centre was demolished to make way for the construction of a new facility.
“Basically, the new centre is completed but it has not been handed over to us yet. All the basic furniture and things are already there,” he disclosed.
He said the handover was supposed to be held in late July. However, likely due to the current circumstances, this had been delayed.
He hoped that RSK Kuching would be able to move to its new and improved facility this month or at least within this year, for the benefit and comfort of the elderly residents.
He said the new centre would include a kitchen, physiotherapy room, occupational therapy room, convalescing block, and other amenities for the benefit of the elderly residents.
“There, we will have more space and there will be a lot of things that we can do. For instance, for our residents who wish to do gardening, we would be able to encourage them to do so. This can be very therapeutic for them,” he remarked.