The autumn years

The autumn years
Depression among older people often goes unrecognised and untreated.

SINGAPORE - According to the Singapore Census of Population 2010, there are 28,086 people above 65 who are living alone in Singapore.

The number is expected to rise to more than 80,000 in 2030. The figure does not include the elderly who spend time alone while their children are away at work.

Depending on their age and health, senior citizens living on their own or with an aged spouse may have to grapple with a whole host of problems. These include preparing nutritious meals, keeping the house in order or shopping for groceries.

Other problems may surface, such as falls, mismanagement of funds and difficulty coping during emergencies such as a fire.

Things become even more complicated when an elderly person living alone experiences loneliness because it can take a toll on the person's mental and emotional health.

Professor Kua Ee Heok is one of the main researchers of the 10-year-long Jurong Ageing Study, which looks at ways to prevent and alleviate symptoms of depression and dementia in the elderly.

The senior consultant psychiatrist at the National University of Singapore's Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine points out that while living alone does not necessarily cause loneliness, old folk who do so and who do not have social support are more likely to show depressive symptoms than those with other living arrangements and who have a good circle of friends and family support.

Ms Wang Jing, a senior counsellor with Tsao Foundation's Hua Mei Centre for Successful Ageing, says elderly people living alone with limited social support may be more anxious when they become ill. Some are also more likely to check themselves into hospital frequently when they have difficulty coping with their worries and anxiety.

To make sure they do not end up alone, some seniors choose to remarry, or settle down for the first time, in their twilight years.

According to the Statistics on Marriages and Divorces, 420 men and 77 women aged 60 and above married in 2012, compared with 145 men and 19 women 10 years ago.

They included those who were single, divorced or widowed.

Prof Kua says it is important that there is a socio-ecological system to make sure that the elderly living alone do not feel disconnected and isolated.

"The 'urban kampung' could resurrect the ethos of the healthy 'young-old' caring for the frail 'old-old', an Asian traditional value that is fast fading."

The former, he explains, are those aged between 65 and 74, and the latter, aged 75 and above.

Meanwhile, Ms Wang says, the elderly living alone should also learn to help themselves.

"They need to learn how to develop their social support system and find ways of staying connected with their family members even if they live alone."

She adds: "And they need to change their mindset and be willing to accept community eldercare services as part of the support system, not just rely on the family solely. When they develop a stronger support system, they feel less lonely and more engaged with the environment and they have more confidence in dealing with the challenges in their lives."


This article was first published on June 1, 2014.
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