SINGAPORE - All older folk in Singapore now have a place to socialise, pick up a new hobby and receive subsidised health screening in their neighbourhoods.
A national programme that aims to get the elderly to stay active and healthy has reached all 87 constituencies islandwide, and research has shown it is working.
When the Wellness Programme was first piloted in 2008, the target then was to reach half of all seniors aged 50 and above, or a total of 500,000 seniors, by next year.
So far, about 310,000 seniors have participated in health screenings and activities that are held at community centres, residents' committees or centres specially built for them.
A study done by Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore in 2012 compared 1,000 participants from the programme with 2,500 people who did not take part in it.
It found that participants were more active and socially connected than non-participants. They were also healthier.
This is a good start, said the People's Association (PA), which has spent over $48 million running the programme.
"We are on track to meeting the target but it is just a guide," said Dr Tan Yong Seng, chairman of the PA Active Ageing Council.
"More importantly, we want to see our seniors leading happy, healthy and active lives for as long as possible," he added.
Such efforts are becoming increasingly important, in the light of a rapidly ageing population as well as the growing ranks of elderly living alone in HDB flats.
For instance, the number of seniors living alone is expected to grow from 35,000 in 2012, to 83,000 by 2030.
While the programme's benefits are clear, the PA said it found it difficult to attract newcomers at first. In particular, elderly men were not so keen to take part in activities such as line dancing, brisk walking or gardening.
So, it introduced more competitive sports and games favoured by men, such as dragonboating.
Today, about one in three participants is male.
Subsidised health screening, the other key feature of the programme, has been drawing a steady stream of 12,000 people every year.
Check-ups are done by nurses and each costs $2 to $5.
They have helped save lives.
Last year, four in five senior citizens screened were diagnosed to be at risk of developing chronic diseases such as kidney failure, stroke or heart disease.
Seven in 10 of these people visited their doctors for follow-ups.
Madam Molly Tay, for instance, has been going for the health screening every year since 2008. Last year, the 62-year-old housewife discovered that her sugar levels were abnormally high and went for monthly workshops conducted by nurses at a Jurong community club to learn what types of food to avoid and how to monitor her sugar levels.
She said: "It is good that it is detected early at the pre-diabetic stage so that I can take steps to keep it under control instead of taking medicine."
Volunteers at the different constituencies have also come up with their own niche programmes. For example, some centres in Eunos and Paya Lebar have introduced the "meridian flapping" exercise where participants use special tools to hit different acupuncture points on their bodies to improve blood circulation.
Madam Wong Soon Yee, 65, who has been doing the exercise every weekday for a year, said she used to be largely housebound due to a bout of polio when she was young. The disease left her unable to walk easily without aid. Now, she can walk slowly to a nearby coffee shop without help or becoming too tired.
She said having such a network of friends also serves as a type of informal roll call. "If any of us has not turned up for a few sessions, the others will notice and check on the person," she said.
The PA said getting most people who are already sedentary to get moving is an uphill task. However, the programme has managed to draw some of them out of the house.
One of them, Mr Cheong Kom Hong, 80, was a couch potato for the last 40 years. But after some prodding from his wife and neighbours, he now joins them for qigong every day at a courtyard under his block in Bishan.
"I find myself more cheerful after getting out more often and making new friends," he said.
This article was first published on June 2, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.