While watching Hong Kong filmmaker Ann Hui’s tear-jerker 'A Simple Life' some months ago, I got the sense of what it is like to grow old all alone, fall sick and then have to kill time as death beckons.

It starred Andy Lau as a film producer called Roger, who lives in an old apartment with his ageing maid and nanny Ah Tao, played by veteran actress Deanie Ip.

When Ah Tao suffers a stroke and asks to be put in an old folks’ home, Roger finds her one and takes on the task of keeping her company, taking her out to restaurants on weekends and looking out for her as she has done for him.

Through the eyes of Ah Tao, the drama unfolds simply at the old folks’ home, where the harsh fluorescent lights and unwashed toilets only heighten the sense of loneliness she must feel as she contemplates the end of her life.

Yet, it was not a movie about despair. Rather, it’s a story about how an old woman manages to make the most of her remaining days and nights as her mental and physical abilities deteriorate, with Roger who, while seemingly callous and aloof at first, becomes her life support and caregiver.

And that brings me to my point: As Singapore ages, there will be plenty of Ah Taos in our midst. At least, the film’s character can count on Roger to foot her bills at the hospital and old folks’ home. Many of us may not find ourselves in similarly fortuitous circumstances.

Why getting adequate medical cover is important

So it is of paramount importance for all of us to do some form of financial planning as early as possible, while we are healthy and our earning ability is at its peak.

The worst possible fate that can befall anyone is to be saddled with a huge medical bill in old age with nobody and no income to rely on. That is why the first question to ask when doing any financial planning is whether you have adequate medical coverage.

At least, we have the MediShield insurance scheme to fall back on.

This is a low-cost plan introduced in 1990 to help Central Provident Fund (CPF) members meet medical expenses. The good thing about it is that Singaporeans and permanent residents are automatically covered when they start contributing to CPF.

But there is one snag: Some Singaporeans choose to opt out of MediShield when they retire or are no longer working, because they no longer have any CPF contributions.

These are the people who fall into the age group that needs medical coverage the most. But since MediShield premiums go up with age, they are reluctant to pay heftier and heftier sums for the coverage to conserve their slender cash resources.

Then there are those who have relied on their company’s insurance plan all their working life. When they retire, they find they cannot get any coverage because they have developed medical problems such as high blood pressure or diabetes.

That is a pity. It may also be a case of being penny wise and pound foolish.

Recently, a friend’s 86-year-old father died after spending three months at a private hospital and then public hospital. The medical bills totalled more than $300,000 in all but, as he had no medical insurance coverage, his family had to settle them with hard cash.

Take advantage of revamped MediShield

It is a lesson worth noting. There is no telling when a disaster may strike – and it may turn out to be very costly if you are not prepared.

When the government revamped MediShield in 2012, it decided to scrap the maximum entry age – now 75 – for joining the low-cost scheme.

To cater to our rapidly ageing population, the coverage has also been extended to people up to age 90, from 85 previously. About 1,700 people aged 86 to 90, who were previously covered by MediShield, will be invited to join the scheme again.

Hopefully, those who are 75 and above will take advantage of the government’s initiative, which has started in March 2013.

After my column in July 2012, urging Singaporeans to buy medical insurance for their parents, one reader wrote to me to relate her tale of woe.

In 2012, her father’s MediShield coverage was terminated as he had turned 85. He had been healthy and had never made a claim even though he had been insured since its inception 22 years ago.

Shortly after that, he suffered a massive stroke and she had to foot his medical bills in full.

It was cruel bad luck and I fully sympathise with her and her family. For those in the pink of health, it is a reminder that the unforeseen can and does happen.

Ref. S13