KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 6 — St. Mary’s Aged Home, located in the housing area of Taman Halimahton that borders the bustling Old Klang Road here, is a peaceful residential centre with wide airy spaces for retirees to age comfortably.
However, the elder care home is struggling to cope with rising inflation triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns over the past nearly three years.
St. Mary’s owner and nurse Jagit Kour urged political parties or coalitions elected as federal government in the upcoming November 19 general election to consider giving 20 to 30 per cent subsidies to licenced care homes like hers to cover the cost of food, utilities and medical equipment.
Jagit, who graduated as a nurse in Bath and had spent 10 years serving in United Kingdom hospitals, emphasises cleanliness, care, and autonomy in her care home, resulting in a centre that is vibrant and immaculate.
However, like with all other industries, the Covid pandemic and rising inflation that followed left a dent in the financial management of St Mary’s that operates five aged care homes in Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya, Selangor.
“Post-Covid, things are extremely difficult. Everything is going up. Our rentals go up. Everything goes up — but we cannot raise the fees of our elderly because the families are equally in struggle, the same trouble like us.
“They also have rising costs to meet. So, either we close down or we continue to care at a loss,” Jagit told CodeBlue in an interview last Tuesday at the St. Mary’s centre at Jalan Halimahton, Taman Halimahton, in the Seputeh federal constituency.
Ashley Kour, Jagit’s daughter-in-law and the operations manager of St. Mary’s, said families of their residents have told them: “I really can’t afford more than this, but I’ve got nowhere else to go as well.”
“And so, you know, then it’s like we really have to look deep down in our hearts and go like, ‘Okay, what do we do?’,” Ashley said.
“We are caught in between really wanting to help them, and then, really securing ourselves…We’ve taken the patient and sometimes, they (patients’ families) don’t end up paying us for two, three months.”
When asked about residents’ Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) retirement savings that might be used for such long-term care, Jagit pointed out that the money often wasn’t enough.
“Patients who have withdrawn their EPF – how long can they stay here? The money is not enough to cover them. And they do not spend on buying equipment. They want to save for care rather than equipment,” she said.
“Most of the time, their children have to end up paying for them because they don’t have EPF.”
Unfortunately, senior citizens who do withdraw their EPF savings will, at most, be able to stay in care facilities for a maximum of two to three years if they have saved RM200,000 and pay RM2,000 monthly for accommodation in a care home, according to Jagit and Ashley.
“Sometimes, if they are a person who requires medical equipment or medical things like gauze and all this, this is all costly and maybe they’ll outlive their money,” said Jagit.
In addition to basic care, St. Mary’s also brings in a physiotherapist and a mental health professional to tend to the elderly. Rooms range from RM1,800 to RM3,000 a month, depending on the care required.
Rising Cost Of Healthy Food
Diving into the nuances of expenditure, Jagit was quick to highlight the rising cost of food — an extremely important component in ensuring quality of life, especially for the elderly, who often come to their care home due to medical complications.
“At this point, it’s really food,” laughed Jagit.
“We serve five meals per day,” said Ashley, “And so every time, lunch and dinner, we’ve got to serve veggie, we’ve got to serve meat. And one kg of chicken is now like 10, 12 ringgit. And so, you know, food is, honestly, it’s taking a big chunk out of our pool.
“Because you’ve got to ensure nutritional value that’s given to them. So, hence, you can’t just buy anything. You’ve got to ensure quality. It’s fresh produce and things like that.”
Jagit, who goes to the market in the mornings to shop for the kitchen, laments the high price of eggs, stating that is the only source of protein that her elderly residents can have.
“Eggs are also expensive. That’s the only source of protein that my elderly can have. And that also, the price has gone up.”
In addition to rising prices, limits on the amount of food that can be purchased have also caused the St. Mary’s care home issues. With eggs being limited to two cartons per customer at markets, the care home has had to go the extra mile to obtain sufficient eggs.
In the event of insufficient eggs, Ashley stated that they had no other choice but to come up with substitutes such as tofu.
Both Ashley and Jagit, however, praised the Department of Social Welfare (JKM) for all the help that they had provided during pandemic lockdowns.
“JKM was very helpful. Where they had cordoned off areas where my homes were, we had to go deliver the food to JKM and JKM would take it to my homes. Really commendable act.
“They had also sometimes given us bags of rice, sugar, milk. They had donated things like that. I don’t know where they had got it from, but JKM delivered it to us,” said Jagit.
Big Electricity Bills From Oxygen Machines, Other Machinery
“Sometimes a patient requires oxygen, electricity goes up,” said Ashley.
During a tour of St. Mary’s at Jalan Halimahton, Jagit showed CodBlue some of the medical equipment used in the care facility to aid patients.
Pointing at the medical-grade oxygen concentrator, Jagit described a time when a resident required the assistance of the oxygen concentrator for 24 hours, significantly increasing the electricity bill at the care home.
The second and third notable medical devices that Jagit drew attention to are a medical air mattress that is required to prevent bed sores, as well as an aspirator that is crucial for removing obstructions like mucus, saliva, blood, and other blockages from a person’s airways.
Each piece of medical equipment Jagit pulled out from her arsenal carried with it a delicate patina that came with constant use and good maintenance.
According to Jagit, the machines are regularly serviced. However, machines used daily are hard to preserve.
Gesturing at the BP machines mounted upon medical roll stands to improve portability and to reduce chances of staff dropping the blood pressure device, Jagit told CodeBlue that St. Mary’s usually replaces these machines every two to three months due to frequent use. This costs about RM4,000 to RM5,000.
With 20 residents in her establishment needing frequent blood pressure checks, these machines — designed for personal use — cannot withstand heavy usage. For St. Mary’s, a commercial BP machine is not an option due to cost and insufficient staff trained in the use of such equipment.
Both Jagit and Ashley strongly championed the need for government subsidies.
“We arrived at that figure (20 to 30 per cent) because we know our government is working very hard and trying to help us in many, many ways, so that is why we arrived at that figure,” Jagit said.
“It can go to food a little bit, it can go to utilities a little bit, and maybe medical equipment. Like they could give us maybe special discounts for medical equipment, medical things. That would be of great help.”
The Senior Citizen’s Aid
- In addition to their request for government subsidies, Jagit and Ashley brought up what they called the Senior Citizen’s Aid. This assistance can take one of two forms: money or nutritional goods.
If the monetary route is opted for, then senior citizens will be given a certain amount of money to afford better facilities and goods — be it medical or household — that they need for their survival.
If the Senior Citizen’s Aid comes in the form of goods, Jagit suggested nutritional items like milk for diabetics.
The cost of specialised food and drinks for patients can be extremely expensive. Ashley stated that a single tin of milk formulated for diabetics can run the centre between RM80 and more than RM100.
“Sometimes, certain patients require tube feeding. They have to be fed every four hours. So one tin is two days, sometimes three days,” said Jagit.
Ashley said, “It’s taking a toll on the family members also. Where do they go? And, I think, the exemption they get from LHDN (Inland Revenue Board of Malaysia) is very minimal. So, where are the family members going to go as well?
“Sometimes people do donations, then it’s those things from donations that we will just use and tell the family members, ‘It’s okay. Don’t need to give. People donated this, so we can use this first’. That’s how we really make by.”
Jagit, however, observed that donations from the public have been slowing.
“But even now, donations don’t come easily because everybody feels you are a paying home, so they should not donate to you.”
Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) manifesto for the 15th general election includes plans for aged care, including proposals to allow third-party contributions to one’s EPF fund and a reconfiguration of the Social Security Organisation (Socso) to include an Elderly Protection Scheme that would provide a retirement safety net for senior citizens.
PH’s manifesto also proposes creating a care economy to expand care for the aged and incapacitated by professionalising the caregiving sector, as well as by institutionalising assistance and an allowance for caregivers. These policies will be proposed in a National Care Economy and Ageing Community Preparedness Plan (SiagaJaga).
Seputeh will be contested by five candidates: incumbent Teresa Kok (PH-DAP), who has held the seat for five terms since 1999, Lee Kah Hing (Barisan Nasional-MCA), Alan Wong Yee Yeng (Perikatan Nasional-Gerakan), Choy San Yeh (independent), and Lee Wai Hong (independent).