The adventure seeker

by | October 15, 2009

Nothing is standing in the way of this gutsy Swiss native and if it did, she would happily sail through it!

BY: Eleanor Yap


It all started when Swiss native Marie-Louise Ansak was moored over in Sebana in Johor in March and her boat happened to be side-by-side to a Singaporean doctor. After connecting with the doctor, she has embarked on a whirlwind adventure in Singapore that she never thought would happen including going on the talk circuit at WINGS, networking with various people and attending the official launch of the Hua Mei Centre for Successful Ageing (a replica of the work she did in the US).

The retired social worker has extended her stay in Singapore for another three months (now already here one month) to do shopping, see the sights and who knows what else, and to think she knew no one from Singapore to begin with. By now, we can only assume she has taken Singapore by storm and knows probably half of the country! If she hasn’t gotten there yet, well she has time. And you can’t help to be enamoured by the gutsy and feisty Ansak as she is 81 years old and happily sailing around the world since her retirement at 65, initially on her own. She has though left a vast footprint back in the US – she pioneered a programme in San Francisco called “On Lok Guey” (in Cantonese for peaceful, happy abode) for older Chinese immigrants.

Today, On Lok has six centres there. The centre at Bush Street serves 150 participants and offers a full medical clinic, recreation and social programmes, rehabilitation and physical therapy, hot meal service, as well as residential apartments for those participants who are no longer able to live at home. On the second floor is an open-air space used for a recreational garden, where participants tend lettuce, sugar peas, spinach, cilantro and bak choy. One wall has a small burbling koi fishpond, and the raised wood beds are decorated with colourful tiles hand-painted by participants. Down on the street, On Lok vans pull up to transport participants to and from the centre, as well as deliver meals and provide services to seniors who cannot leave their homes. The difference between On Lok and other day centres is that it has a comprehensive medical and social healthcare team.

What On Lok is today would not be possible without Ansak or her constant perseverance. To understand Ansak is to understand her background. Born in Switzerland, both her parents were doctors, hence her interest in the field. She started out as a nanny and lamented, “It was mostly a lot of work and not enough money.” She later did social work. “In Switzerland, the situation there was things got taken care of, there was lots of resources but the emotional part of a person wasn’t the focus.”


Hard work 

She migrated to the US in 1954 but decided to start out as a nanny. A year later, she worked at a children’s home and in 1956, she started working with immigrants. This was her pivotal period. “I had never seen a Chinese until I went to San Francisco!” In 1960s, she got into the Chinatown area and started helping those who migrated from Hong Kong to the US because of changes in the immigration law in 1965. With her work there and recognition of her fundraising efforts, she was asked to build a nursing home. Ansak explained, “I knew nothing about elderly then!” At the time, the Chinese elderly were sent to nursing homes where people spoke English and they were fed American food, and Ansak felt this was not the way they should live.

Because of overcrowding of nursing homes and high costs, the Government started looking for alternatives. That bode well for Ansak. She decided on a day health centre and called the patients “participants”. “I hate the word “patient”, said Ansak. She put together the proposal for the Centre and with sheer luck, got funded by the Federal Government for three years. She took over an old burned-out gay bar and brought in Chinese, Filipino and Italian social workers to cater to her participants and as a result, focused on them and their needs. “It became very successful. We brought them in by transport and dropped them off at the end of the day. We added in-home services and portable meals.”

Because of a three-year funding, she had to look for continuous funding. “There was a lot of politics involved and we had to continuously convince the Government that this was the right thing to do,” said Ansak, who happily got another three years of funding. She then discovered that there were elderly who could not live in their homes as they had no children or had certain medical conditions so she quickly filled the gap with permanent as well as intermittent housing. On Lok constructed a building with 70 units with mostly single beds. In the building, she brought in a day health centre with a medical and social team.

In 1978, when the three-year funding came to an end, Ansak and her team felt that On Lok staff physicians should provide direct medical care to the participants. This converted On Lok into a regular healthcare programme. They approached Medicare (an insurance programme for elderly over 65 and handicapped) and requested them to fund all services from meals to hospitalisation. Under what was called a “capitation system”, this meant On Lok would receive a certain amount of money per month and would then assume all responsibilities of payment of necessary services. Though originally Medicare paid out the actual expenses, after four years it was proven that On Lok was cheaper than any nursing home and provided better care. At this point, Ansak said, On Lok was integrated into the traditional reimbursement system on another three-year experimental basis. When this was successful too, the foundations and the Government decided to pass legislation to make the programme permanent and replicate it.

Today, using the On Lok approach, there are 90 PACE (Program of all-inclusive care for the frail elderly) centres in the US and all doing well. The Government eventually authorised all PACE programmes as Medicare and Medicaid (for those with low income) providers, and this further cements all of Ansak’s hard work. Since she left, On Lok is now called On Lok Lifeways and its future remains unclear. “I don’t know what’s going to happen now with the whole healthcare issue in the US in the forefront,” said Ansak, speaking of President Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms, which have come under fire from the public and the US Congress.


Her retirement

In 1993 when she was 65, Ansak decided to retire and went sailing first to the Caribbean and later the Pacific. She has sailed to the islands of the Caribbean and then went through the Panama Canal and sailed through the Galapagos, Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia. She returns to her home base, US, every two years. So how did she get into sailing? “I had a roommate back when I was in my 20s who was also in her 20s and who wanted me to go to bars to find a husband. I found it utterly boring since I don’t drink!” said Ansak. Her roommate then came up with a crazy idea of sailing and together they bought a 3m boat and went out to sail. “None of us really knew how to sail. However, low and behold, when we got back to the harbour, some guys did pick her up.”

Ansak finally did learn how to sail through a chance meeting of a man at the harbour who was willing to teach her the ropes. (He later married her best friend and his children now take care of her affairs in the US.) She got hooked and had a goal that she would retire on a boat. She bought her own 39ft boat in 1988 in Massachusetts and strangely, it was already named Dessert First. She knew the boat was meant to be hers – “We Swiss are addicted to sweets, especially chocolate.” She then took classes in celestial navigation (but that has proven useless as boats now use GPS). Asked why she does not have a crew with her in the early stage, she remarked, “You have to get along with each other. You can’t just walk out when you are at sea!” Ansak was happy to do her sailing adventure on her own. “My brain is often challenged as I see people who I have seen before in different places I docked some two years later.”

She adamantly refuses to take unnecessary risks when she sails. “I don’t go out during cyclone or hurricane season. In November to May, it is pretty safe in the Caribbean while in May to October it is safe in the Southern Hemisphere.” However, she admitted she has encountered storms. “In the 16 years that I have been sailing, I have encountered two semi-serious storms. I have never been in a hurricane and will never take that risk. You have to hole up somewhere in a safe harbour.” Asked if she ever got lonely being on her own, Ansak replied, “I kind of liked it that way. I would read or do watercolour. I really didn’t feel lonely.”

Her sailing has not only brought her to places where she has never gone before but it has also brought her closer to the environment. Once, she shared, she was in the Cook Islands where there were only sailboats and no commercial boats. “We were like 1,000 miles away from everything. We were asked to help with the cleanup of the area and we found we could make eight huge fires with the items we found such as tires, plastic, shoes, etc. The pollution is incredible.”

Now with bad knees (she had replacement knee surgery but it did not correct the problem) for which she uses a walking aid, and sports a hearing aid, she says she can’t sail on her own anymore and needs a crew. This trip from Australia to Malaysia and then to Singapore, she had a small crew. She also used to do a lot of the work on board her boat but now she gets help. “If I need anything done, I can do it in Malaysia or Phuket where it is cheaper.” Asked about the expense on her maintenance, she laughed, “I could have bought a fancy condo but then I wouldn’t have had 16 years of fun.”

Though she knows age is catching up, she is not about to stop sailing – “There is a lot of stuff that happens to you such as black and blue marks that suddenly appear. It is a fact of life and you have to get used to it that you are not 30 anymore … however, inside I feel 30!” She said she does not know when she might stop sailing even though she has played around with the notion of getting “grounded” in Hawaii, however, “it would depend on when I have the courage to leave my boat.” We believe that may be her biggest challenge yet!

** See Ansak’s blog at:



• She enjoys swimming 10 laps everyday in the pool.
• She used to ski a lot until she reached 61 and says that is why she has had bad knees, however, “I don’t regret it”. 

• Surprisingly, she still gets anxiety when she comes out of a harbour each time – “For the first hour, I feel like I have never sailed before. It passes after. I try not to yell at people.”

• When she was sailing alone, she admitted to talking to herself – “I used to talk mostly in English but now I catch myself speaking in Swiss. People say when you get older, you tend to revert to your original language.” 

• She does meditation and is a devotee of the Dalai Lama. She is also learning Mandarin. 

• On her 80th birthday, she had a celebration in Bali.



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