WITH her background in interior design, Susan Suah wants to make Malaysian homes aged-friendly.
“The building industry has already built so many wonderful buildings and condominiums, and they have all kinds of facilities, but are they aged-friendly?” asks the deputy president of the National Council of Senior Citizens Organisations Malaysia (Nacscom).
Her vision is a Malaysia where all buildings are aged-friendly.
Suah has been involved in interior design in the country since returning from her studies in London in 1972. The former co-founder of the PJ College of Art and Design was principal of the college until her retirement in 2003. She was also one of the founding members of The Malaysian Society of Interior Designers (MSID).
“When I wanted to retire, I decided to take care of my parents in Penang. Unfortunately, my parents passed away pretty soon after I retired. So, I had nothing to do and I went into charity work and joined Nacscom,” she explains.
In 2002, with a growing interest in the future of ageing, she spent one month at Swinburne University of Technology Melbourne researching retirement homes.
“Because my interest is in home care for the aged, I also did some research on Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong, this region, but in those days it was too early to do anything in Malaysia,” she says.
Since joining Nacscom, she has been busy running its old folks home and working with its 40 affiliates from all over the country, which are basically senior clubs to promote healthy active ageing. However, last year Suah decided she wanted to do something different, by merging her two interests.
“I rounded up my interior designer friends and also MSID. I thought, it’s high time we did something for society. That was how we organised the Home Décor and Design Exhibition (Homedec) at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre. Although it was the first time Homedec was held, we received very good feedback. The exhibition is going to go to Penang in April and Johor in July.”
She says it is not difficult to make your home aged-friendly. She emphasises the toilet and kitchen need to be a priority and the small steps in split level homes need to be looked into.
“It’s not difficult. That’s why I roped in the interior design society … to create more awareness. Most designers are taught to do things that are wild, unique, out of the box … but not really aged-friendly. As we age, our movements are not as flexible as before. So, what do we do?
“We don’t have to move into a new place or a new environment. Let’s improve our home, or at least one room. We have rooms for maids and store rooms but we don’t have a grandparents’ room. That is absurd. We must have a bigger toilet downstairs, the door to the toilet should be larger and the room next to it should also be bigger. I think that is the least we can do.
“I think it is a matter of replanning and thinking. Having an aged-friendly room is not going to affect the value of the property. In fact, it adds value to it. It should be viewed that way,” says Suah, appealing to developers to look into making homes aged-friendly.
In fact, they should look beyond just the homes they are building. Suah believes they should also look at the community and facilities within the townships. If all neighbourhoods need to have a surau, playground and multipurpose area, then why not have a daycare centre for the seniors? This way, the people in the community can stay there from birth to death, explains Suah.
She informs that it is not that difficult to incorporate facilities for the aged. Even in a condominium, the management just needs to look into having brighter lighting, eliminate split level floors and have a room and planned activities for the elderly.
One of the ideas that she picked up in Hong Kong is a resource centre on aged living.
“Hong Kong has a large population and most of the people stay in high-rise buildings. They are not in landed properties. The Hong Kong Housing Society has a resource centre which creates awareness and serves the community.
“That is something I thought Malaysia should have. I’m trying to see if the local designers and MSID can do something like that. It is a showcase centre and also a place where you can get information. They would even have a show unit of what is required for the kitchen and toilet and the contractors who are registered with the centre would be able to do the renovation work. That is what I hope to do. I also want to work with MSID to educate the new interior designers,” says Suah.
As Nacscom deputy president she takes care of the old folks home in Setapak where they provide free lodging and food to about 20 residents.
She also handles activities and any renovation work that Nacscom needs.
The busy 69-year-old has many interests including crafts and cooking which keep her busy.
One of the challenges she has is dealing with the fixed mindset of the older generation. “They are used to being independent and don’t always tell you what the problem is. Children sometimes find that as their parents age they now don’t understand them and wonder why they are stubborn. Actually, you need time to observe, hold their hand and talk to them. They will tell you in a different way what they like and don’t like,” she says.
While working with the aged does present its challenges, Suah maintains an interest and passion in helping Nacscom members and the industry.
“I am interested in people and the stories behind them. Some are very knowledgeable but they are still stuck in the past.
“I am keen to share and teach the current generation, so that homes for the elderly will be better in the future.”
She is very proactive and believes in doing things rather than waiting for others to complete the task at hand.
“I feel useful. Old people like to be useful. I am old, too. I am 70 (this year), okay! I keep myself active and I have a lot of interests … in crafts and cooking,” she quips.