Trunks of surprises from the past

by | May 8, 2019

National Heritage Board launches programme to help seniors reminisce and spark conversations with others.


Seniors from St Luke’s ElderCare, working with a Heritage Truck.

Tay Yeok Leng, 83, remembers the iron in the Heritage Trunks, part of a programme launched recently by the National Heritage Board (NHB) to help seniors to reminisce and spark conversations with others. These trucks are being trialed at St Luke’s ElderCare’s (SLEC) 22 eldercare centres, where some 50 percent of seniors have dementia.

The grandmother of 10 shared that she used a much bigger iron than the one in the trunk to iron her children’s uniforms. She said that with her particular bronze iron, you needed to put charcoal into it and the charcoal had to be lighted up. “I had to iron the uniforms twice a week,” she added.

The Heritage Trunks come in three themes – Dressing Up, Lifestyle and Entertainment, and Everyday Living, with each containing objects that are familiar to seniors. For instance, in the Dressing Up truck, there are accessories and toiletries that would have been commonly used by the seniors during their adult life. They include a ladies’ handbag, a bottle of cologne, a case of face powder and a hair dryer from the early days. The iron that Yeok Leng saw came from the Everyday Living trunk.

A senior holding a ladies’ handbag from the Heritage Trunk.

For 83-year-old Yali Tay, it was the face powder that she remembers fondly. She would use the white powder as well as the pink powder (which has the same effect as the white powder) particularly after bathing.

Dr Lester Leong, chief operating officer, SLEC, explained: “We do a lot of reminiscence therapy with seniors and this unlocks memories of our elders. There are some who may not say much, these trunks might trigger memories and places from their past, and they might be able to express their rich life experiences. It also increases their self-worth. They will be able to share their stories whether they have dementia or not.”

He added that SLEC also works with schools who send in volunteers and the trucks could help start conversations. He said that the seniors can touch, feel, hear and smell, and share in their lives, and all this builds community through the different generations and even helps alleviate depression.

With the objects in the trucks, there are also structured questions to facilitate meaningful and purposeful interactions amongst the seniors, and between seniors and younger persons. Through such interactions, NHB hopes to enhance the psycho-social and emotional well-being of seniors, and encourage them to connect with each other and others.

Added Alvin Tan, deputy chief executive (Policy & Community), “Through this programme, we hope to re-use and re-purpose items from our community collection as heritage-specific interventions targeted at enhancing the well-being of the silver community. In doing so, we are repositioning our museums and heritage institutions as more than just ‘collectors and holder of artefacts’ but rather as active contributors to the well-being of an ageing society.”

The Dressing Up Heritage Trunk.

For Yeok Leng, her memories go well beyond the iron; she also recalled her hard life when younger. She came from China to Singapore with her mother at the age of eight. She said, “At the time, Lee Kuan Yew was not the prime minister.” She added that her family was poor and they stayed in a one-room Government flat opposite Tiong Bahru market with eight family members and rent for the flat was a mere (looking at today’s standards) S$20 a month. Her father was a fishmonger in Jurong Market and her mother would help sell the fish. When she got older, she sold lor mee and wanton mee at Tiong Bahru Market. She also had a stint selling dim sum at a hotel at Lau Pa Sat and worked at a zi char store for 10 years. Later, she went to Jurong fish market, where she helped to coordinate which fish went to which truck.

She started working at the age of 38 and did not stop working till 70-plus when she retired. “No money no choice,” she lamented. She needed the money to buy a S$16,000 three-room Government flat and to support her children’s education. Her husband alone could only contribute so much as he was cutting hair at the time for S$2.50.

Once the trial with SLEC ends in June and NHB receives feedback, the Heritage Trunks will be then be available for loan free-of-charge to various healthcare and social service organisations from July 2019, via e-mail at: These organisations can include senior activity centres, social and/or dementia day care centres and residential care facilities.




Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *