Wanted: Seniors with heart

Wanted: Seniors with heart
Once a garrulous woman who loved to go out, Madam Yoe Boh Toh, 101, is largely stuck at home these days. The highlight of her week is a visit from volunteer befriender Che Ah Chiew, 69, who chats and plays cards with her.

Every Monday morning, retiree Che Ah Chiew, 69, visits a very special friend. At 101, Madam Yoe Boh Toh is hard of hearing and sometimes forgets names and faces.

But she always recognises Mr Che, her craggy face breaking into a wide toothless smile each time he arrives at her doorstep.

On a recent morning, she greets him with a warm hug before settling into an old sofa for their weekly rendezvous.

He tells her about his week, she describes her breakfast. They play cards. But in half an hour, she begins to doze off and the visit is cut short.

"She tires easily, so we can't chat for very long," says Mr Che.

"But I love coming here just to see the smile on her face."

The former wanton-noodle seller began visiting Madam Yoe in her Bukit Batok flat last year as part of a befriending programme initiated by NTUC Health to bring cheer to lonely old folk stuck at home.

A volunteer since he retired a decade ago, Mr Che now spends around 24 hours a week helping others in Jurong, Bukit Batok and Hougang.

But Mr Che may be among a shrinking group of senior volunteers in Singapore.

According to the latest Individual Giving Survey by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC), only 9 per cent of people aged 65 and above volunteered last year, down from 17 per cent in 2012 and 11 per cent in 2008.

The centre's chief executive Melissa Kwee believes this could be because many older folk are delaying retirement.

Others may be busy with caregiving duties, be it looking after frail or sick loved ones or grandchildren.

"We are working on integrating volunteering into existing life patterns and activities," says Ms Kwee.

"For instance, seniors can help out at the nearby seniors' activity centres in their free time or participate in community activities together with their families."

Executive director Edmund Song of RSVP Singapore, an organisation for senior volunteers, concurs that the dip in volunteer rates among seniors coincides with a push by the Government to keep older Singaporeans employed longer.

"The tight labour market and higher wages have prompted many older Singaporeans to remain in or return to the job market," says Mr Song.

Seniors can access a host of volunteer opportunities through RSVP, including engaging lonely older folk and the mentally ill, hosting international students on short visits and serving as guides in public places such as Changi Airport.

While RSVP's membership has risen from 650 to 1,100 over the past decade, only around 300 volunteer regularly.

Lack of time is not the only major challenge. Some older folk may not have the confidence to sign up for volunteer work, points out Mr Song.

Meanwhile, others like Mr Che, Mr Toh Weng Kai and Madam Lo Khuen Neong remain hooked on helping others well into their retirement years. The way they tell it, volunteering nourishes the soul.

Mr Che, a quiet, unassuming father of two grown-up children, says simply in Mandarin: "It gives meaning to my life."

Mr Toh, 80, a retired photographer, volunteers as a cyberguide, teaching computer literacy to seniors who may find learning from younger people frustrating.

When his son gave him a computer a decade ago, "Uncle Toh" tried to get the teenagers in his neighbourhood to teach him how to use it.

"But they just did not have the patience for me," he recalls.

So he enrolled in computer classes at GoodLife!, a centre run by a volunteer group in Marine Parade that promotes active ageing.

He has also rekindled an old passion, holding photography classes for seniors at the centre.

"We chat, make friends, bond over a hobby we all love... it's really great fun," says the genial grandfather of six. "I get a lot in return for my time."

Madam Lo, 82, who grew up poor, volunteers at the Willing Hearts soup kitchen four days a week.

She leaves her Marine Terrace home by 6am for a half-hour commute to Jalan Ubi, where 3,000 meals are cooked and distributed islandwide to the needy every day.

The cheerful great-grandmother of four also spends two evenings a week at an old folks' home in Chinatown.

"We grew up poor and have a lot to be thankful for," says the retired bus conductor who took English lessons at 76 to communicate better with her grandchildren.

"Volunteering is my way of giving back."

Sometimes, it takes a nudge to get seniors to volunteer.

Madam Chan Foong Chai, 89, used to help out at a daycare centre for dementia patients that her husband attended, but stopped after he was warded in a nursing home.

The Jurong centre was too far from her Telok Blangah home.

Voluntary welfare organisation worker Chai Chee Mei, whom Madam Chan had befriended at the Jurong centre, persuaded her to start volunteering again.

She now spends at least four mornings a week at SilverACE, a centre for seniors near her home.

"I might never have done it if Chee Mei had not reached out to me," says Madam Chan.

"I am glad she did."

RSVP Singapore and NVPC are planning programmes to get more seniors to volunteer.

RSVP wants to engage 5,000 volunteers for 50 events in 50 locations across Singapore. It is also encouraging existing volunteers to bring their friends in a bid to get newbies hooked on helping.

NVPC announced last week that it will launch a unified portal in November to make it easier for people to give time and money.

It will also hold a Giving Week in early December to promote philanthropy and volunteerism among all age groups, including seniors.

"Volunteering is both purposeful and a way to stay connected and relevant, even after one has retired," says Ms Kwee.

There may be older folk who want to help but don't know where and how to find these opportunities, she adds. "We hope to reach out to this group."

Home away from home in Taman Jurong for the elderly

Like many activity hubs for older folk islandwide, the Senior Services Centre in Taman Jurong sits at the foot of a housing block. It is run by a voluntary welfare organisation - Thye Hua Kwan. And its walls are decorated with colourful murals.

But the similarities end there. Unlike traditional centres, this one offers many programmes that are planned and implemented by the residents themselves. About 70 or 80 drop in every day.

Among the diverse group of seniors who frequent this lively meeting point in Tah Ching Road is Madam Maywaddy, 69, a retired engineer who goes by only one name. She holds weekly zumba sessions that are a hit with many residents. The dance-based fitness programme from Colombia has become popular in Singapore in recent years.

Retired army officer Lim Boon Chor, 75, offers his services as a handyman.

Housewife Maimunah Ibrahim, 56, regularly attends the centre's free zumba and exercise classes. The garrulous former hotel worker pays it forward by befriending lonely seniors living alone in the community.

Watching Madam Maywaddy move lithely to the music during her classes, it is hard to imagine that she survived a life-threatening stroke 13 years ago.

She learnt zumba while convalescing in Australia, where her only daughter lives. "It strengthened my muscles and helped me make a full recovery," she says.

She still pays for zumba and body sculpting classes at a gym near her home, and passes on whatever she learns free of charge to those who drop in at the Taman Jurong centre. "They are my kaki - it's the least I can do," she says with a smile.

Madam Maimunah, who attends the zumba classes, says the centre provides both a place and opportunities for residents to forge new friendships as they age.

"Many elderly are afraid of being lonely," says the childless woman, who visits six lonely neighbours two or three times a month as part of the centre's community befriending programme. "Our little club gives us things to do and lets us be useful."

She is all praise for the centre's cheerful programme manager, Ms Diyana Abu Samah, who came knocking on her door a few years ago to tell her about its programmes and activities. Madam Maimunah had just quit her job as a housekeeping staff member. "I was tired, but also worried about being bored and depressed," she says.

Now, it is her turn to coax lonely seniors out of their homes. Among them is Madam Kamsirah Misty, 61, a divorced amputee who lives alone in a one-room studio apartment for seniors. Madam Maimunah visits her two or three times a month.

Ms Diyana says one reason the centre is popular is that residents get to decide for themselves what they want to do.

"If you like calligraphy, you can start a calligraphy class. If you like bead-making, you can do that. If music is your passion, you can jive to Lady Gaga," she says. "My role is to enable them to treat the centre as their home away from home."

radhab@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on May 24, 2015.
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