Commentary: Ageing population? Three lessons I learnt caring for seniors

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SINGAPORE: It was a Wednesday afternoon. The door opened and 86-year-old Madam Nadia, a frail and worried-looking old woman peeked gingerly from behind the locked gate. We introduced ourselves as Pioneer Generation Ambassadors, and she smiled and shook her head.

Madam Nadia told us that she did not speak English, thanked us for our visit, and said that things were “quite okay”.

Sensing something amiss, Auntie Tang and I persisted in engaging her. We started talking in Malay, albeit a little clumsily. Me, using the Bahasa Indonesia I picked up from a prior posting in Indonesia, and Auntie Tang using her “pasar Malay”, as she calls it.

Perhaps because of the switch in language, Madam Nadia seemed more comfortable and relaxed after a few minutes. She invited us into her flat and started to tell us more about herself.

It turns out that Madam Nadia was taking care of an autistic daughter who’s over 60 years old, and she was agonising over a letter that spotted “On Government Service”. She knew it was important, but she did not know what it was because it was in English, and she could not read the language.

We helped her translate the letter, which turned out to be a notification offering her daughter additional subsidies after a required medical examination. We also set up a return visit for our volunteers to assist her with the arrangements for the medical examination and provide her with directions and necessary contact numbers.

Madam Nadia was visibly relieved and much happier when we left.

 “Pioneer Generation Office? Do what one?” is the most common response I get when I tell others where I work. One of the things I enjoy most about my role is serving as a Pioneer Generation Ambassador, a volunteer who goes up to the homes of seniors like Madam Nadia, to explain government schemes that they can access and see what assistance they require to do so. Often, the language we use are those the pioneer uses – Malay, Tamil, Hokkien or Cantonese to name a few.

Sometimes, Pioneer Generation Ambassadors speak to seniors at the door until they are comfortable enough to 

These encounters taught me several things – let me share a few here.

ONE: TO HELP SENIORS, WE MUST FIRST FOCUS ON BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS

When the Government launched the Pioneer Generation Ambassador programme in 2014, the mission was clear – to bring pioneers greater assurance by helping them understand the benefits of the Pioneer Generation Package. And as part of the programme, our volunteers will visit all pioneers, regardless of income status or house type.

Within two years, we’ve managed to knock on the door of every pioneer in Singapore. And we have engaged over seven in 10 of our pioneers. Last year, we expanded our outreach to seniors aged 65 and above, because we now know the value of making a face-to-face connection.

From time to time, we come across seniors whose living situation belies what one may infer from data. On one end, a senior who appears well-off may need support because he cares for a disabled wife. On the other, another who stays in a 2-room flat could have strong support from her children and chooses to stay alone because she wants to be close to friends in her old neighbourhood. Even when the data suggests a certain senior needs help, he or she may be reluctant to ask for it, like Madam Nadia.

It is only when our volunteers make the effort to spend time with our seniors and build a relationship in the process, that seniors feel comfortable enough to share with us their unique circumstance and trust us enough to talk about their challenges.

The door-to-door home visits help us reach seniors who may need help but are unsure about where or how to get assistance. Our office acts on their behalf by working with partner agencies who administer relevant assistance schemes. We usually follow through on applications, until they receive the help they require – this may include the installation of ramps and handle bars for a senior who uses a wheelchair, or referrals to dementia programmes.

PM Lee chatting with Pioneer Generation ambassadors in 2015, one year after the programme was launched. (Photo: Loke Kok Fai)

So while we can write national policies, establish schemes and set aside funds as a nation to care for our seniors, what we need more is to build relationships with them in order to care for them effectively – whether as volunteers, families, or communities. Only then can they receive the assistance they require.

TWO: IT TAKES A VILLAGE TO CARE FOR A SENIOR

The programme works because we have the support of the community and other agencies. What we do will not be possible without many partners who provide additional assistance to our seniors, whether is it befriending them, providing medical escort services, or delivering meals. 

We are especially thankful for the over 3,000 volunteers who have stepped forward as Pioneer Generation Ambassadors. Often, when I ask our volunteers what keeps them going, they tell me that it is the insight they get out of conversations with our seniors, the discovery they make about themselves in the process, and the knowledge that they can make a difference.

Most of our volunteers live in the same communities they visit – so they develop a fuller appreciation of who their neighbours are and what struggles they face. And this in turn helps break down walls of isolation that our seniors may experience with old age, the onset of sickness, or an illness that hinders movement.

THREE: THERE IS A SILVER LINING IN OUR AGEING STORY

One in every five Pioneer Generation Ambassadors is a senior. Auntie Tang, who I mentioned earlier, is already a grandmother. We did not go out of our way to recruit the elderly to be volunteers, but over time, we have found them to be a natural fit. Our senior volunteers are multi-lingual – with some speaking as many as five languages or dialects – and are keen to do something meaningful now that they have reached a new stage in their lives.

Seniors are often our most passionate and committed volunteers. They find new purpose in serving and caring for their fellow seniors. They put in the time and energy to go the extra mile, and are always keen to pick up new skills along the way.

Mrs Satyabhama Karunakaran speaking to On The Red Dot about why she decided to be a Pioneer Generation Ambassador.

Most importantly, our older volunteers come with a wealth of experience. While many of our volunteers are accomplished professionals, the life experiences and empathy that elderly volunteers bring in engaging other seniors help break the ice. During house visits, we will often ask the elderly we visit about their families so that we can better understand their unique circumstances. So we meet seniors who have lost spouses or children, for instance. In moments like these, it brings seniors immeasurable comfort to be with someone who has gone through similar life experiences and is able to empathise with them.

Singapore is one of the world’s fastest ageing societies. By 2030, one in four Singaporeans will be aged 65 and above, up from one in seven today.

But as our experience with the Pioneer Generation Ambassador programme has showed, we can count on our seniors to pull their weight and take care of those in their ranks as well. 

Ageing need not be a greying problem. By honouring seniors in our communities, caring for them, learning from them and supporting them to contribute back, old can be gold.

(The names used in this commentary are pseudonyms to protect the identities of the people mentioned.)

David Neo is Programme Director at the Pioneer Generation Office which mobilises Pioneer Generation Ambassadors to conduct outreach to seniors.  

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