Helping S’pore’s elderly isn’t always about giving money. What they need is a pair of listening ears.


| Ashley Tan | Sponsored | January 28, 2021, 05:58 PM

I’m one of the few people who isn’t very close to their grandparents on both sides of the family.

I typically see them only during the big family get-togethers at Chinese New Year, or the odd birthday gathering at other times. Admittedly, the stark language barrier looms over whatever interaction we have and my proficiency in Mandarin is poor at best.

My understanding of seniors’ mindset and the issues that plague them are thus quite superficial, save for the occasional Facebook posts highlighting the financial plight of seniors in Singapore.

But after accompanying some volunteers along on a home visit to the elderly, I’ve come to realise that every little thing, such as having a listening ear, matters.

Not just low income elderly

It was a blisteringly hot day when I shadowed Owen Tan and Lionel Cheah during one of their recent home visits to reach out to some seniors at home.

Cheah is a Silver Generation (SG) Ambassador, while Tan is a staff member from the Silver Generation Office (SGO), the outreach arm of the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC).

AIC, which is an agency under the Ministry of Health, helps coordinate and support efforts in providing and integrating care for caregivers and seniors in Singapore.

Both men’s roles include visiting seniors at their homes to learn more about any problems they are facing, offering whatever assistance they can, and connecting them with necessary services.

One of the seniors we were visiting was staying at a block of three-room flats at Yishun St 61.

I was a tad surprised at the location, as I was expecting the home visits at lower-income single households. Yishun comes across as a neighbourhood with the amenities and community that one will expect from a mature residential estate.

Instead, I found out that SG Ambassadors focus their efforts not just specifically on the seniors in need, but any senior residents above 65 living in various residential estates.

This was just the first in a string of unexpected observations I made about the role of SG Ambassadors during the two and a half hours I spent in Yishun.

Building rapport

Before going up the lift, Tan prepped us on the details of the senior they would be reaching out to.

The 62-year-old, surnamed Koh, is currently unemployed. Koh is an exception beyond the age range that SG Ambassadors typically contact as he originally approached community club staff seeking help, and was subsequently referred to the SGO.

This visit was thus to establish first contact and get Koh familiar with any government schemes that could help him.

As we knocked on Koh’s door, his immediate reaction was wariness, exclaiming (joking?) whether the large group of us was there to arrest him (there were five of us).

Cheah and Tan greeting Koh. Photo by Ashley Tan

Once inside Koh’s flat, which was decently furnished with a WiFi router and TV, Tan proceeded to ask about Koh’s wellbeing.

Koh was frank about the health complications that plagued him, such as his limited mobility, failing eyesight and kidney problems, the latter of which required him to go for dialysis several times a week at the nearby centre.

These are issues which one cannot tell from the surface. At least that’s the case for me.

One of Koh’s main gripes was that he was unable to get a motorised wheelchair, something which he had approached his MP about.

Tan who was the communicator during this visit while Cheah recorded down information, then took pains to explain to Koh that such wheelchairs are usually given to those who could not walk at all — at the moment, Koh can still walk with the aid of a walking cane.

However, Tan still assured the senior that the SGO would do their best to help him.

The pair touched on a broad range of topics while they were there — whether Koh had collected his TraceTogether token, if he was aware of the various government subsidies and Covid-19 financial schemes, and if his dialysis sessions were going well.

Tan was surprisingly casual while interacting with Koh, which took me off guard.

I had always believed that those in such positions would maintain a certain distance, this perhaps stemming from my own awkwardness around my grandparents.

To build rapport and trust with Koh, Tan even reiterated several times to “treat [them] as friends”, and even gave the senior his own mobile number, emphasising for Koh to call him should he encounter any problems.

Helping to shoulder their burden

I realised that the role of an SG Ambassador or a staff extends beyond the daily nine to five.

30-year-old Tan has only been working as an SGO staff for less than two years, but the passion in his job is unmistakable.

He revealed that he started volunteering for seniors since Secondary 1, and despite home visits being typically carried by SG Ambassadors, Tan is eager and “onz” enough to tag along too.

And really, home visits are more than just lengthy, clinical explanations telling seniors how and where they can seek help.

It involves shouldering their burdens too.

During the visit, Tan asked Koh the very simple question of whether he was happy.

Koh candidly answered that due his myriad of health problems, he occasionally had suicidal thoughts.

“I really not happy about my life, sometimes I think about jumping out,” he shook his head. “I can’t live anymore, too [much] stress in my life.”

Koh’s legs are injured and bandaged. Photo by Ashley Tan

To which Tan and Cheah both urged him to have a more positive mindset. Tan also suggested for him to not remain cooped out at home, and to make more friends outside who he could confide in.

The duo also offered to connect Koh to the Lions Befriender service, where a volunteer can pay regular visits to seniors to provide them with companionship, and he eventually conceded.

I can imagine listening to and empathising with others so often can be draining, but Tan seems to have a healthy amount of zest for this job.

Tan (left) and Cheah (right) as they listen to Koh’s struggles. Photo by Ashley Tan

Reading the room is key

Reaching out to seniors is more than just mere chit-chatting too.

Despite interacting with the elderly as casually as they can, a certain amount of social awareness and EQ is required to be an effective SG Ambassador.

At one point during the home visit, Tan attempted to convince Koh to cut down his smoking — the senior shared that he currently smokes a pack a day.

Koh refused though and got rather agitated, adding indignantly that he has been smoking for the past 40 years.

At his response, Tan decided to drop the matter and swiftly changed tack.

Needing to “read the room” is a sentiment echoed by 19-year-old Cheah. SG Ambassadors are trained in a host of soft skills, and aside from learning how to break the ice with seniors, are all aware of recognising certain red flags during home visits, such as smelling alcohol or if the senior is undressed.

Cheah recounted home visits where seniors can adopt a rather defensive or obstinate attitude, and much time would then be spent trying to calm them down.

Home visits are clearly not a walk in the park all the time, I learnt.

The small things can help seniors age gracefully

It struck me that the role of a SG Ambassador went beyond that of simply offering assistance to some seniors.

SG Ambassadors help to make accessible and bridge the gap between welfare and community care services and the government initiatives, and seniors who may not know how or where to receive such help.

As they reach out to a broad spectrum of seniors, SG Ambassadors also help to rescue those in the middle income range who might fall through the cracks, unaware that they require assistance.

Overall, it’s about making the seniors’ lives as easy as possible and allowing them to age as gracefully as they can.

And while financial schemes and subsidies do contribute much in relieving these troubles, it’s the small things that matter too.

Tan shared that beyond the first visit of touching base with a senior, he still tries to visit them once in a while for a quick chat and to see how they’re doing.

“Volunteer work is not a one-off thing you know,” he quips. “Rapport is not built within a day.”

Cheah added that he and other SG Ambassadors have also spent time outside of conducting home visits to clean the home of a senior with mobility issues.

During a second home visit to a rather cheerful wheelchair-bound senior, the SG Ambassadors’ efforts were physically evident with the presence of a prominent ramp, leading from the HDB corridor into the flat, which they had procured.

The ramp outside one senior’s home. Photo by Ashley Tan

Volunteer on an ad hoc basis

While one might expect the role of an SG Ambassador to be rather time consuming, Cheah assures that it isn’t.

Volunteering to be a SG Ambassador takes place on a completely ad hoc basis, allowing volunteers the flexibility to contribute while working around their existing schedule.

Cheah is currently a first-year Republic Polytechnic student, but volunteers as a SG Ambassador during his school holidays or on weekends.

If you worry about having to approach seniors on your own, fret not. SG Ambassadors work in pairs during home visits.

There are currently around 3,000 SG Ambassadors in Singapore and they have conducted over one million engagements with seniors.

SG Ambassador have to be over 18 years old, and either a Singapore citizen or Permanent Resident.

You can find more information or sign up to be a SG Ambassador here.

If you would like to know more about care services and schemes that seniors can tap on, you can visit the AIC website.

You can also call the AIC hotline at 1800-650-6060 to speak with their Customer Care Officers for advice.

This sponsored article by AIC allowed the author to listen to seniors’ stories.

Top photo by Ashley Tan