Family

“I want to grow old”: 35-year-old Isaiah Chng

Audrey Hau // September 26, 2018, 4:07 pm

isaiah-with-elderly

At age 23, Isaiah Chng felt God turn his heart towards the elderly. Since then, he has dedicated 11 years of his life to working with the aged. Photo courtesy of Empower Ageing.

“Why so young, work with old people?” 

It’s a question Isaiah Chng has become so accustomed to that he promptly produces his iPad, armed with a set of slides, ready to recount his story. 

Chng, 35, has devoted the past 11 years of his life to working with the elderly. He founded both ProAge and Empower Ageing. 

ProAge is a social enterprise and accredited consultancy for workplace health, specialising in running health and wellness programmes. 

Empower Ageing, on the other hand, is a non-profit organisation that seeks to reverse frailty, reduce social isolation and enhance the lives of seniors with dementia. 

Jiak ba buay?

On 13 August 2006, Chng became a believer, and God began to reveal visions of things to come, turning his heart towards older people. 

It was a “peculiar” process for Chng, who was not particularly close to his grandparents at the time. Conversations with his grandmother rarely went beyond the usual pleasantries like “Jiak ba buay?” (Hokkien for “Have you eaten?”) 

By the time he became a believer, his grandmother had passed away. 

At age 25, Chng decided to register the name “ProAge” from a couch in Perth. This came after one and a half years of running a free wellness programme in his church, Cornerstone Community Church. Photo courtesy of Isaiah Chng.

But God was bringing him through a profound transformation.

When he passed the elderly in wheelchairs or walking on the street, his heart would ache for them as he felt their pain, loneliness and suffering.

He channelled this passion toward volunteering with his church, Cornerstone Community Church, visiting nursing homes to befriend the elderly. He was taken aback by what he saw. 

“Twenty beds in one room, people lying down, as if they’re behind bars.”

He says this with such intense indignation that it belies the fact that he’s recalling events that transpired over a decade ago. 

Auntie Tan

Then, he goes quiet. 

On his iPad screen, there is a photo of an elderly woman laying in bed. She has no arms and no legs – only her torso remains. 

With emotion, he begins to share the story of Auntie Tan (not her real name). She had been suffering from diabetes and the symptoms became so severe that the only course of action left for doctors was to amputate all four of her limbs. 

On average, the wellness programme led to a 40-50% improvement in the seniors’ lower limb muscle strength.

He struggled to understand how Auntie Tan had ended up in such a state in a country as advanced as Singapore.

He knew there was nothing he could do but to pray for her. Still, the image of Auntie Tan was indelibly etched in his mind.

“I needed to see change, not just for Auntie Tan, but for the whole population.”

Auntie Tan inspired him to put together a wellness programme that would prevent others from deteriorating to a similar state. He reached out to his church pastor and began to assemble a team of church members to conduct a science-based wellness programme. 

The programme was not just limited to church-goers – invitations were extended to the elderly in the community.

Inspired by Psalm 92, Chng believes God intends for the old to be “flourishing”, “fruitful” and “fresh”.

Every Saturday, seniors gathered for exercise, talks and outings aimed at promoting physical and emotional wellbeing.

On average, this programme led to a 40-50% improvement in the seniors’ lower limb muscle strength. Their stamina also improved and depressive symptoms left as they became a community and a family.

Fruitful and flourishing

Chng knew that there had to be more to ageing than just decline and deterioration. If not, why would God allow people to grow old?

Isaiah picture with his mother, wife and 3 children. This journey has challenged him to be a better father and son as he strives to align his life with Gods vision.

With his mother, wife and three children. Working with the aged has challenged him to be a better son and father as he strives to align his life with God’s vision for families.

Turning to the Bible for inspiration, he found Psalm 92:12-15.

“Flourishing”, “fruitful” and “fresh” aren’t words commonly associated with old age but Chng believes that those are the standards God has set for the aged. 

“I want to grow old!” It is an almost unheard of statement, but Chng has repeated it in the interview.

While most see 60 as the time to slow down, Chng sees 60 as “our prime time”, when we have the most experience, resources and time to contribute. 

While most see 60 as the time to slow down, Chng sees 60 as “our prime time”, when we have the most experience, resources and time to contribute. 

Even for seniors who may not be flourishing physically, Chng believes that they can still be fruitful in many ways.

Auntie Beatrice was an elderly lady in the wellness programme. In 2009, suffering from cancer, she was admitted into a hospice.

Although she was bedridden and frail, she continued to praise God, declaring His righteousness amidst her suffering.

“Every time I met her, she would pray for me.”

Chng whips out his handphone and loads yet another video. It is Auntie Beatrice in her hospice bed, singing Amazing Grace, raising her arms in praise. Her visitors are waving their arms jovially, singing along. 

“Fifteen minutes after this, she was gone. Basically, she praised God until she died.” 

Supernatural provision

Despite his vision, Chng admits that the journey has not been smooth sailing.

While he was working full-time as an engineer, he was running the wellness programme on the side.

But the more he worked with the aged, the heavier his burden for them. Chng knew that God was calling him to do more.

Largest Conductorcise exercise conducted with ministers and 3,000 civil servants. ProAge is consulted by well-known corporate sector clients such as Nestle, Great Eastern and SATS, as well as a host of government agencies on strategic projects.

The largest “Conductorcise” exercise by ProAge, with participation by Cabinet ministers and 3,000 civil servants. ProAge is consulted by well-known corporate sector clients such as Nestle, Great Eastern and SATS, as well as a host of government agencies, on strategic wellness.

Taking the plunge, he quit his job to fully focus on his work for the elderly.

In 2008, he had been running the wellness programme out of his own pocket for one and a half years. He had $19 left in his bank account. 

There was only one thing he could do – pray.

So pray he did, and shortly afterwards, the Health Promotion Board (HPB) engaged him as a consultant on a national-level project. A second project came a week later.

God supernaturally provides. Once when he banked funds in, he discovered that it was the exact amount required to tide them through.  

He was on a couch in Perth, having just received his graduation certificate in Sports Science, when he gathered up the courage to register the name “ProAge” on ACRA. 

Fast forward to 2018 – ProAge is now in its tenth year of running. Chng has a Youth Social Enterprise Commendation Award under his belt for being one of the top 10 outstanding youth in 2018. He has several well-known corporate sector clients and countless successful projects. 

There were plenty of financial challenges along the way, but God supernaturally provided.

He describes how, when he was just starting out, he lived not knowing if he would have enough funds for the next week.

One time, with barely anything left in his pockets, his reservist Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT) award was what gave him enough cash to continue with his wellness programme. 

Even after starting ProAge, there were multiple times when there were insufficient funds to pay utility bills and staff salaries. On one occasion, he prayed and cried out to God, and when he returned to the office, an envelope lay on his desk.

A client had decided to make their payment on that very day, and when he banked the funds in, he discovered that the payment was the exact amount required to tide them through.  

A counter narrative

Though the team struggled with finances, they consistently gave to causes for the elderly.

“God has created us wonderfully, that we can grow muscles at whatever age.”

It came to a point where they realised it was no longer viable to continue with this model of giving.

Chng then started Empower Ageing, a non-profit organisation that focuses purely on helping the elderly age well. 

A strategic focus of Empower Ageing is that of advocacy.

“In nursing homes, they say: We need volunteers to occupy the seniors,” says Chng.

Empower Ageing hopes to change how eldercare is done in Singapore by shifting the focus from “occupying” our seniors to meaningfully engaging them. They put together a 6-week lifelong learning program for people with dementia. Pictured above is the artwork some of the seniors produced. For many, it was their first time doing brush painting.

Empower Ageing hopes to change how eldercare is practised in Singapore by shifting the focus from “occupying” seniors to meaningfully engaging them. They put together a six-week lifelong learning program for people with dementia. Pictured above is the artwork some of the seniors produced; it was the first attempt at brush painting for many of them. Photo courtesy of Isaiah Chng.

On the other hand, we send our children for tuition, not just for them to be occupied, but so that they can improve.

By disempowering the elderly, we impose a limit on how much they can do, contributing to their physical and mental deterioration.

“Because we advocate that old people can be fruitful, we need to walk the talk.” 

Isaiah hopes to offer a narrative counter to this. “God has created us wonderfully, that we can grow muscles at whatever age.”

Even the elderly with dementia can learn new skills. 

To facilitate healthy ageing, there needs to be a shift in the wider societal climate, Chng believes.

Rather than just “occupying” seniors, Empower Ageing offers different services where seniors pick up new interests such as calligraphy, painting or tea appreciation.

As part of this paradigm shift, Empower Ageing has organised an inter-generational sports advocacy event jointly with ProAge, called Go For Your Mountain, where young and old scale Mount Faber together on September 29. 

Speaking Hokkien

While the vision he has for the elderly is rooted in Scripture, his work is not confined to just believers.

Chng hopes to transform eldercare and public perception of the elderly on a national level. 

ProAge recently employed Uncle Kim, whom Isaiah had met in a rental flat in 2010. Uncle Kim, 79, only speaks Hokkien and was unemployed for a few years after a backache forced him to quit his job as a road sweeper. 

It was not a natural choice for the ProAge team – they do not speak Hokkien fluently. But Chng challenged the team to give Uncle Kim opportunities to thrive.  

Chng with Uncle Kim, who has joined ProAge as full-time staff.  Other seniors are working with ProAge on a part-time or voluntary basis.

Chng with Uncle Kim, who has joined ProAge as full-time staff.  Other seniors are working with ProAge on a part-time or voluntary basis.

Uncle Kim started off as a part-timer and is now working full-time with ProAge as a co-trainer, helping other seniors with chronic conditions to recover, and is en route to becoming an assistant health coach. 

“Because we advocate that old people can be fruitful, we need to walk the talk.” 

The past 11 years of his life have been devoted to this cause and it’s a journey that continues to shape his identity as a son and father. 

On a daily basis, he encourages his twin daughters to go up to seniors on the street and give them a hug. He also brings them along on his hospice and nursing home visits.

“The seniors all smile when they see them.” 

Isaiahs two twin daughters frequently bring joy to the elderly they encounter, be it in public or in nursing homes. He makes a deliberate effort to teach them to honour seniors. Photo courtesy of Isaiah Chng.

Isaiah’s twin daughters frequently bring joy to the elderly they encounter, be it in public or in nursing homes. He makes a deliberate effort to teach them to honour seniors. Photo courtesy of Isaiah Chng.

His line of work also challenges him as a son to make an active effort to engage his mother through simple things such as sharing photos of grandchildren, reminiscing over the past, or going out for meals. 

“Ultimately, it’s about how I can play a role in helping her live life purposefully.” 

Isaiah and his mother third from left in 2010, pictured with peer leaders on the wellness programme he started in 2008. His mother served as a peer leader as well.

Chng’s mother (third from left) in 2010, with other peer leaders in the wellness programme he started in 2008.

“At the end of the day, God sees all of us as his children. That includes a 98-year-old ah ma (grandmother) who is wrinkled, and maybe not as vibrant as a kid.

“God sees her just as a child who deserves to be cuddled, taught, enriched, affirmed. Everything we would do for children, God would do for an older person.” 

About the author

Audrey Hau

Audrey is an undergraduate reading History, Politics and Economics in the UK. In junior college, she was the chairperson of the Publicity and Publications committee within the Students' Council. Being away from home has intensified her love for bubble tea, National Day songs and blue skies. She is currently an intern at Salt&Light.