Passion for aged care

Tan Choe Lam with a resident at Jeta Gardens, Queensland
His passion to care for the aged

Tan Choe Lam, 60, founder of Jeta Gardens, Australia’s first retirement community based on Eastern values, opens Jeta Care in his hometown, Kulaijaya.

I was born in Kulaijaya, the twelfth in a family of 14 children, and I completed my secondary education in Sekolah Sultan Ibrahim (SSI) in 1969.  I have fond memories of my school days, especially being spared from punishment by then headmaster, M G Parry.  I learnt a great deal about discipline from him and it is not surprising that SSI produced a number of prominent people who are contributing positively to society.

Tan framed up his mother's sam-foo
blouse for display in Jeta Care
I continued my studies with the Singapore Polytechnic and when I graduated as an Aircraft Engineer, I worked with MAS, our national carrier from 1972 to 1978 before joining the Guthrie Group.  At age 30, my career was just taking off when my 82-year old father suffered a stroke.  As a result, he was partially paralyzed and needed full-time care.

Being a typical Chinaman, my father’s mindset was that no other female except his wife, could touch him and this posed a serious problem to my siblings and me because my mother, who was also advanced in age, could not handle the task of caring for him.  Having been brought up with the Confucian values of filial piety, I made a decision after thinking this through and quit my job to do my filial duty.  The experience of taking care of my aged father, planted the seeds of desire to create a support system where one can have a successful career and married life while taking care of our aged and ailing elders.

Between 1981 and 1985, I dabbled in several small businesses in Kulaijaya and after my father passed away, I accepted a business opportunity in Papua New Guinea.  I spent the first 2 months in the bush learning to survive from snake bites and lived like Indiana Jones but it was the start my next 10 years there.  However I knew it was not the life for my wife and young family so we decided to relocate to Brisbane, Queensland.

Tan chatting with residents at Jeta Gardens, Queensland
Meanwhile, my aged mother needed full-time care and as my 7th sister, Tan Soo Kim, took care of her, I provided the financial support until mother passed away in 1998.  The experience with our parents opened my eyes to the issue of Asia’s aging population and the cultural challenges involved.  As I committed myself to serve the community full-time, I carried out a survey and among other things, I discovered that two Asian giants, China and India, will have the largest population of older adults in 2025.

The influence of Western values on younger generations and the breakdown of filial piety and family relations in East Asian countries are also challenges for the caring of aging Asians.  Taking into consideration their dietary requirements (preference for rice and noodles), their emotional and social needs as well as the stigma associated with care homes, I mulled over the concept for a professionally run retirement village and residential aged care facility.  In 2000, I created the Jeta Concepts that incorporate the 4-fold concept of Aging in Place, East Meets West, 4-Hs for Home, Hotel, Holiday Resort and Hospital and service with Joy and Compassion.

Tan [Right] with a resident [Centre] and staff
Over the next 3 years, I went on road shows to educate and raise awareness among Asian Australians that Jeta Gardens, Australia’s first Retirement Community based on Eastern Values, is where they can also call home. 

In a strategic partnership with Kumpulan Perubatan Johor (KPJ), construction of the first phase of development on the 26.6026 hectares piece of land started in 2003 and the Aged Care Facility opened in June 2007 with sections for High Care, Low Care and Dementia Care residents.  

To date the Jeta Gardens Retirement Village has 23 Independent Living Units and 32 Independent Living Apartments with a planned development in the next 10 years of a hospital dedicated to geriatric care, international nurses training college, serviced apartments and shopping mall.

Tan at Jeta Care, Kulaijaya
To bring the Jeta Concepts to Johor, work on creating Jeta Care in Kulaijaya started in 2010.  Four units of our family-owned shops were renovated with wheelchair-friendly and multi-cultural facilities like a surau and halal menu in the café, to comfortably accommodate 80 residents.  This facility is now open as Malaysia’s first Aged Care Centre based on Australian concepts and Confucian values. 

Age is irreversible and I believe we have a role to play in addressing the issue of an aging population in Asia.  With my expertise and experience on aging issues among Asians in Australia, I am now often invited to speak at international conferences.  The most recent was in April 2012, as guest speaker at the Ageing Asia Investment Forum in Singapore. 

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 7 June 2012

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