SINGAPORE - When Mr Wong Kam Siam looks at the wall, he sees colourful drawings of flowers and birds against an expanse of sky blue.
Just a few months ago, the wall of his room at the Asian Women's Welfare Association community home in Ang Mo Kio, where he lives with 139 other seniors, was just a boring cream colour.
"I didn't know I could have a choice, so I was very happy when they suddenly said we could choose our own room colour and decorations," said the 94-year- old.
He also has more say now over what he likes to do - usually reading the newspapers or singing karaoke - instead of having to join in mass activities, such as bingo.
Indeed, a growing number of help groups are allowing their clients to decide what they want instead of making all of them do the same thing.
It is a trend that the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) is hoping to encourage in the area of eldercare, with the launch of a toolkit last week to offer tips on how such a "person-centred" approach can be applied.
At least 20 help groups have adopted this approach in caring for the elderly since the movement started here five years ago. This prioritises the individual's personal needs and goals in the services that he receives, instead of him passively getting services.
The philosophy stems from influential psychologist Carl Roger's belief that each person knows his own history and needs best.
Currently, welfare groups here tend to be task-oriented, said Ms Lim Hwee Er, who heads a group of eldercare leaders who meet regularly to share best practices.
For example, it used to be common for nursing homes or day-care centres to run like clockwork. The elderly would, for instance, take showers at 7am every day, regardless of whether they felt like it.
"Their wheelchairs are parked by their bed at the same spot every day for prolonged hours and they are fed out of trays," said Ms Lim. But these seniors should be accorded dignity and empowerment despite being cared for, she added.
This can be done by letting them decide how they wish to be cared for and modifying programmes or the use of space.
The Alzheimer's Disease Association, for instance, will be building a new centralised kitchen in the next few months to enable its seniors with varying degrees of dementia to mingle.
"We have two separate kitchens, one for those with mild dementia and another for the more severe ones, as it is more efficient for them to take their meals separately," said its senior social worker Lau Yu Cheng.
"But this may stigmatise them and does not promote inclusion."
At Wesley Seniors Activity Centre, seniors are consulted on what they wish to eat whenever parties are planned and their breakfast routine has been tweaked to emphasise personal choice.
"Instead of having a factory-assembly line model where the elderly go down the line and have food ladled out for them, we set the food out but let the elderly decide how brown they want their bread to be toasted or if they want milk in their coffee," said Ms Kwok Sian Yee, the centre's supervisor.
Ms Tina Hung, NCSS' deputy chief executive, said most eldercare services emphasise medical and physical issues over psychosocial needs. But these needs affect quality of life significantly too, she said.
Overall, though, an approach centred on the person is catching on in the social service and health-care sectors, especially eldercare, as baby boomers who are now in their 60s are savvier, she said.
"Today's seniors are more educated and resourceful, and they want better service outcomes and more control over the services they receive," she added.
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