SINGAPORE — Since she was 16, Kris Foo has given her mother an allowance — a common practice in Asian countries and a sign of filial piety and devotion.
But as her mother aged, her needs grew. One afternoon, Foo found blood on the wall, after her mother, Lee, slipped on a chair and cut her head. Foo, who is 53 and unmarried, decided it was time to move back home.
With Singapore's rapid development over the past 50 years came a sharp decline in the fertility rate. Today, the cost of caring for the substantial aging population is falling disproportionately on women, many of them unmarried, who have sacrificed careers and retirement savings to care for their elders but have no children to do the same for them.
Women make up 60 percent of Singapore's informal caregivers, according to a 2012 government survey. Thirty-five percent of all informal caregivers are unmarried, and most are between the prime earning ages of 45 and 59. Many give up jobs or scale back their hours as their parents' needs grow. The average caretaker loses 63 percent of her income, more than $40,000, according to a 2019 study by AWARE, a gender rights organization.
Sending money to parents who cannot support themselves isn't just a cultural custom. It's the law. The 1996 Maintenance of Parents Act allows parents who cannot sustain themselves to take their children to court to demand a monthly allowance.
When her mother was diagnosed with dementia in 2014, Foo decided to close her office at the edge of the business district. Working out of her childhood bedroom, she watched her clients and income dry up.
By 2016, she was broke at 48, having spent more than $75,000 on her mother's care. "I had to borrow money from my cousin to put food on the table," said Foo, holding back tears.
She began to question what her own retirement would look like: "Who is going to take care of me?"
To address the country's aging population, the Singaporean government has created an action plan that pushes seniors to "age in place" for as long as possible, with the understanding that family caregivers will step in where needed and avoid placing seniors in homes. It provides grants of up to $15,000 for those who live within three miles of their parents.
Many children take pride in caring for their parents at home, where the seniors can be surrounded by family and partake in the household's daily routine. Because unmarried children tend to live with their parents, the duties and costs of elder care often fall to them.
"We are a little bit different from the Western world," said Eddy Lim. The 52-year-old, unmarried insurance underwriter cares for his mother, who has dementia. "For me, I would never consider putting her in a home, unless caring for her was beyond my capacity."
Lim feels he owes a debt of gratitude to his mother, who worked long hours in a convenience store to provide for her five children. He has paid all his mother's household expenses since he started his career and takes caregiving lessons to learn how to deal with her mood swings and memory lapses. Today, he provides for her financially, while his sister, also unmarried, assumes the main caretaking duties.
"The children were her priority for so long," he said. "Now we are giving back to her."
People age 65 and over make up 11 percent of Singapore's population, up from 7 percent in 2000. As seniors live longer, the cost of caring for them at home is rising.
By 2030, average annual health-care expenses for seniors in Singapore are expected to rise to $37,000, the highest in the Asia-Pacific region. To help caregivers, the government subsidizes day-care centers, medical expenses and the cost of live-in maids. Those caring for people with permanent disabilities are also eligible for monthly grants of up to $150.
The rising costs are putting particular pressure on lone caregivers who have put their careers on hold.
Nadia Daeng, 38, was transitioning into a senior role as a marketing and brand developer for start-ups in Singapore when her mother had a stroke that left her severely impaired.
After talking with her brothers, Daeng agreed to quit her high-powered job to care for their mother full time. She found herself trading glitzy launch parties for nights at home changing her mother's diapers. The switch plunged her into a depression.
To cope, she reframes her tasks. She is not cleaning up soiled clothes, but honing her crisis-management skills; not chauffeuring her mom from appointment to appointment, but learning to multitask and schedule. She is a project manager, and her mother is the project.
"I struggled with the idea of having a career that has to be put on hold indefinitely, but I try to comfort myself by saying, 'You always talk about how you want to help others at work. Now your mom needs help, so let's help her,' " she said.
Stringing government grants together with income from freelance marketing gigs, she gets by. But she's never sure she will have enough to cover basic expenses. "I'm always looking at my bank account wondering: How am I going to make $50 last two, three weeks?"
Daeng relies on support groups in which caregivers offer tips and bolster one another emotionally. She hopes that as Singapore ages, the burden will be similarly shared.
"We are living in an aging population. And there is going to be more of us," she said. "There's an old saying: It takes a village to raise a child. Well, it's the same on the way out."