It's 7.30am and the neighbourhood field in SS20, Petaling Jaya, is already a hive of activity.
At the basketball court is a group of about 30 practising Tai Chi.
In the children’s play area, a handful of women are going over their dance steps, counting under their breath as they co-ordinate their feet to match the rhythm of a tune that’s playing softly in the background. There are a couple of brisk walkers circling the park and a few others walking their dogs.
These are the third agers of SS20 – those in their 60s and 70s who have retired from work but haven’t slowed down one bit.
“I’m so busy that if I want to start a new activity, I’d need to check my schedule,” says Datuk Koh Kia Lim, 70, a retired Malaysian Air Force Brigadier General.
SS20 isn’t a retirement community but Koh says many of its residents are empty nesters – seniors who live on their own after their children have left the coop.
A couple of years ago, the community attracted the attention of University Malaya geriatrician Dr Tan Maw Pin who included them in her study, Promoting Independence in Seniors with Arthritis.
Part of the study was looking at how communities can encourage social participation among the elderly through social groups.
SS20 residents rose to the challenge. They formed a Social Connect Group (SCG) to promote independent and active living among the seniors. The group is an extension of their resident’s association but is not limited to those living in their suburban community.
“Our vision is to create a community of seniors who are healthy and happy by providing opportunities for them to interact socially and take part in healthy, lifestyle activities. There is no membership required and we encourage people to bring their friends or relatives to join us in our activities,” says Koh, who heads the dynamic group.
Koh and his wife, Datin Dr Lim Ah Lan, 70, lead the hour-long park dancing sessions at 8am every Monday and Friday.
“The idea was just to get together, dance and have fun. But because many of us have never danced in our lives, we decided to start these weekly sessions where we could learn a few basic dances. I’m not a great dancer myself but I know a couple of dances and was brave enough to step forward to teach the group what I know,” says Koh, with a laugh.
So far, the group has learnt dances such as cha-cha, rhumba and Macarena, says Lim.
“When we started, everyone was self-conscious and shy but just two months later, at our (community) Merdeka event, we actually performed some dances and everyone joined in! We hope one day soon we can organise parties where everyone just dances to the music, freestyle,” says Lim, who also records tutorial videos to enable her group members to learn new dance moves at home.
The “park dancing” sessions started last July and have proven to be quite popular, attracting about 20 or so regulars each time. The oldest dancer is Leong Yu Fong, who at 83, hardly misses a session or a beat.
Retirement spells freedom
For E.K. Hong, retirement has given him the opportunity to try new things that he’d missed out on when he was busy working. The retired teacher from Lumut, Perak, is the classic third-ager – refusing to view retirement as a time to wind down and take things slow.
“It’s the opportunity to be free! I’m enjoying things that I couldn’t do before because I was working. I’m making new friends and catching up with old friends and I’m really enjoying my life,” says Hong, 77.
According to academic Peter Laslett, life is divided into four ages. The First Age is the era of dependence and learning; the Second Age, the era of independence, responsibility and working; and the Fourth Age is the era of final dependence and death.
He believed that the Third Age is the golden era – the period after retirement for personal achievement and fulfilment.
Laslett coined the term third-agers – those from the ages of 50 to 75, retired and with resources to pursue their interests.
Because of longer life expectancy, current generations enjoy a “life bonus” of 30 years or so not available to previous generations.
Third-agers like Koh, Lim and Hong are challenging stereotypes about ageing by leading active lives. And, they are determined to get more of their peers to join them in their activities.
They also go on weekly hikes at Bukit Kiara in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, a short drive from their neighbourhood, in a group of between 18 and 30 seniors.
“We didn’t dream that so many people would join us on the hikes but it has become quite popular,” says Lim.
Their Tuesday morning outings are led by Dr Katie Ang, an avid hiker, who takes the group through a 6km hike.
“It takes us about two hours, after which we adjourn for breakfast. It’s exercise and fellowship too. But mainly, it helps with our agility.
“As we grow older, our co-ordination and balance aren’t so good and hiking helps strengthen our muscles and improve our agility,” says Dr Ang, 66, formerly the Selangor state health director.
Getting seniors to come out took time and some persuasion, admits Koh.
The SCG even organised an “induction course” for the residents to allow them to meet, get to know each other and learn about the activities they could participate in.
“We rented a seminar room and we started with an ice breaking session which helped us get to know each other better. Not everyone who attended has joined the activities but at least we aren’t strangers who live next to each other anymore,” says Dr Lim, a retired botanist from University Malaya.
Their greatest “success story”, Koh proudly shares, is getting their neighbour Sushila Subash to join in their activities. Although Sushila has lived in SS20 for over 40 years, she didn’t know many of her neighbours.
“I was a mother and a housewife. Although I was involved in volunteer activities, my priority was looking after my family. When my husband passed away about a year ago, I became really lonely and miserable. I was even thinking of moving away.
“But then I met Datuk Koh who persuaded me to attend the induction course. I went and was surprised and pleased to meet so many others who were in my situation.
“My life has changed so much since. I’ve made so many new friends and I can’t believe I climb hills now! I’m definitely staying put. I’ve come out of my cocoon!” jokes the 67-year-old who now enjoys cooking curries for her new friends.