A Day In The Life Of A Therapy Assistant In Singapore

Here’s the shocking truth – we will have close to one million old folks (962,000) aged 65 years and above in Singapore by 2030 and our population is ageing at a faster rate compared to other developed nations. The question all of us need to ask ourselves is – are we equipped to help our elderly age more comfortably? To get a glimpse into how our nation is getting itself ready to take care of the greying population, we decided to shadow Sandy, a Therapy Assistant (TA) with NTUC Health Nursing Home to experience a day in the life of a Therapy Assistant In Singapore.


Quick Facts On Nursing Homes In Singapore

There are only about 12,000 nursing-home beds, 6,900 home-care places and 3,500 daycare places now. Given our ageing population, we will need to ask ourselves if this is sufficient. The task that I am assigned today would be to shadow Sandy and have a quick on-the-job training to go through what she does on a daily basis as a Therapy Assistant at NTUC Health’s first nursing home in Jurong West.


Job Shadowing As A Therapy Assistant 

Donned in the TA uniform, I met Sandy for a quick briefing session at the rehabilitation facility. She explained that this is where some of their residents receive specific gym-based therapy to aid their healing process so that they can get to return home with their loved ones. She shared that I will be helping her to conduct “Tai Chi For Arthritis” (holistic approach for both mind & body), “Theraband” (general strengthening exercise) and “Throwing Balls” (general physical activities) later. These are basic exercises that help to keep their residents physically active.


Sandy shared that an 80-year-old male resident, Mr Abdul, who could not get out of bed and walk, managed to recover through an active rehab program and is able to walk again. Thanks to the holistic care by a multi-disciplinary team including medical, nursing, allied health & medical social worker, he has since returned home to his loved ones and resumed work as a janitor. However, not everyone is as fortunate as Mr Abdul. Most residents are wheelchair-bound or highly dependent. Sandy tells me that the home currently has 48 residents on each level (5 levels opened) and there will be more occupants once the level for dementia residents is ready.


Sandy went further to explain that there are basically 3 groups of residents:
– Group 1: Wheelchair-bound, mostly due to mild stroke or Parkinson’s and can participate in group exercises.
– Group 2: Impaired cognitively and either suffered from severe stroke or dementia. (Group 2 are residents who are not able to join in group activity, but will be more beneficial from one to one bedside therapy session)
– Group 3: Bed-ridden with the nasogastric tube as they can’t eat or swallow.

Each level of the nursing home hosted these 3 groups of residents. Level 7 residents (female level) are under Sandy’s care. We are all ready to go meet the residents with this handy trolley.


Why Did Sandy Make Such A Drastic Career Switch? 

The TA job was new for Sandy as she recently graduated from a 3 months WSQ sponsored course through HMI in Healthcare Support last September.  I was curious to know why she made that drastic switch from petrochemical industry (dealing with freight companies) to a sector which many shun due to the low pay and challenging work environment.

“Because of my dad”, she said with her voice trembling and tears welling up in her eyes.  “I had a stressful job…even when I had flu, I had to go to work. Sometimes, I have to stay until 9pm if there are shipment delays. They finally got a manager in to help but there was no difference in my work load. That was when I decided to quit.

When I was looking out for a new job, I found out that my dad was diagnosed with the last stage of lung cancer. He was a heavy drinker and smoker. We had a hard time. My sister and I took turns to take care of my dad and brought him for radiotherapy. Doctor said he had about 3 to 6 months to live but he couldn’t make it past 6 months. I couldn’t accept because he passed on in front of my eyes. Then I chanced upon an advertisement on a therapy assistant course and I thought…I couldn’t help my own father but I can help others.”

It is evident how her switch in career has impacted the lives of others.  When we reached level 7, we saw how the residents were eagerly waiting for her to start their day.

Morning Exercise With Level 7 Residents

Sandy had to first sort residents according to the 3 groups and then arrange Group 1 residents (wheelchair-bound) to prepare for the morning exercise at the day space. She then went around with a mini whiteboard which stated the day’s date. Sandy reminds her residents of the dates as some of them don’t keep track of calendar dates as part of the effort to help maintain resident’s sense of orientation.


We were ready to kickstart the Tai Chi for Arthritis. Sandy had to specially attend a 2-day course with her Principal Physiotherapist to learn and teach her residents the 6 warming-up steps in Tai Chi for Arthritis. She modified her version slightly to cater to the wheelchair-bound residents. Sandy shared that it was initially difficult for them to learn the routine but they are familiar with it now. That was quite a relief for me as I have trouble remembering steps too. *phew*. Most residents follow Sandy’s guide on Tai Chi for Arthritis while a few dozed off. I think a TA needs to be able to multi-task, which Sandy is good at. I can’t focus on my routine while monitoring the elderly.


Next up – Therabands! The bands help them to maintain their physical functions with resistance.  Sandy helping one of the residents to tie the Therabands around her fingers. Other activities include ring toss and throwing bean bags to cones which the residents enjoyed. Some of them look feeble so you can imagine my surprise when they knocked down 4-5/6 cones!


Sandy eggs them on as they try their luck at ring toss. These task-oriented activities keep their both mind and body engaged as they move their upper body forward from their wheelchair for a purpose. Age is just a number: Madam Karumaya Kaiyammal may be 101 years old this year but it does not stop her from having fun. They clearly enjoy the challenge.


Time to play ball! This is the residents’ favourite game. Some of the residents are even better at playing ball compared to me. I enjoyed this interaction game the most as it made them laugh.


How Is Being A Therapy Assistant Rewarding? 

Sandy shares that while there are challenges such as in learning new things, dealing with residents in their mood swings and having to tailor therapy to residents of different needs, this job rewards her with satisfaction. One of the most touching moments in her 9-month journey at NTUC Health was an interaction with a male resident named Mr Chee.

“He was crying at the corner of the day space one day and I told him he must share with me what happened…I didn’t know what happened but I found out that he was put in one corner by himself. He was isolated from others. Even though I had a hard time finding out the reason for him being so upset, I was touched that he eventually was willing to share. Building trust with the residents brings me joy.”

Singapore is Indeed An Ageing Population 

Right now, 1 in 8 Singaporeans is at least 65 years old. 15 years later, the figure will double. There will be high demand for residential care in the near future but will we have enough workers to fill these jobs in the healthcare sector? The Government made a right move to pump in $1.1 billion on infrastructure to ramp up nursing home capacity. This means that salaries will also increase to attract Singaporeans to the sector.

A therapy assistant currently earns between $1,200 and $2,000, depending on where you work at. Would you consider being a Therapy Assistant or pursuing a career working in the eldercare sector? Please leave your comments below.


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