SINGAPORE: Organisations that provide care and support for the elderly are stepping up outreach efforts to prevent loneliness and heightened isolation among old folks during tighter safe distancing measures put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To protect seniors – a vulnerable group at a higher risk of getting a severe infection – activities for them were already suspended earlier in March.
With further distancing measures in place, the lack of social interaction and physical activity could have a negative impact on the mental and physical health of vulnerable elderly populations, said Dr Chris Tsoi from the department of psychological medicine at the National University Hospital (NUH).
Madam Koh lives alone and has already seen reduced social interactions over the past few weeks.
“No, no I don’t go out. I buy vegetables and then come I home,” the 82-year-old said of her current daily routine.
She has been living alone for more than a decade.
Speaking in Parliament on Monday (Apr 6), Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee highlighted how the Silver Generation Office reaches out to vulnerable seniors such as those living alone or those who are frail.
“Since last month, Silver Generation Ambassadors have started visiting these seniors in their homes to communicate COVID-19 precautionary measures, such as hygiene tips and social distancing,” Mr Lee said in response to a question on how vulnerable people are being helped during the pandemic.
“They also identify seniors who require additional assistance during this period, and link them up with the appropriate social service agencies and service providers to ensure that their needs are met,” he said.
Home visits by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or healthcare teams are also useful, Dr Tsoi suggested.
READ: COVID-19: All activities at CCs, RCs and PA facilities to be suspended
Organisations like Lions Befrienders, whose aim is to provide care and friendship for seniors like Madam Koh, have stepped in.
Lions Befrienders took measures to suspend social activities at its centres in February, affecting more than 6,000 seniors from their network.
Before the outbreak, Madam Koh used to visit the Lions Befrienders’ branch near her home, where she would meet fellow seniors.
“Five days, sometimes six. I stay there between 9am and 5pm before I go home. Now that the centre is closed I sit at home, lah,” she exclaimed.
But these safe distancing measures are necessary.
“Even though it may impact the seniors’ social interaction, it is a necessary move to protect them,” Lions Befrienders said.
With social interactions minimised, staff and volunteers at Lions Befrienders have adapted by calling to check in on seniors at risk of social isolation. Sometimes, these conversations go on longer than usual just to keep the elderly company.
Short home visits are now mainly done for medium or high-risk seniors, meaning those who are home-bound, senior caregivers and potential suicide or abuse cases.
The Singapore Red Cross will also be providing customised care packages and psycho-social support calls for seniors living alone.
“Volunteers are pressing on with fortnightly home visits and weekly befriending calls to the seniors, the Red Cross said in a news release, noting that safety measures for those helping out are in place too.
“These are extraordinarily trying times. It is critical that we intensify our efforts to uplift the most vulnerable in our community, who are amongst the hardest hit,” said Mr Benjamin William, secretary general and CEO of the Singapore Red Cross.
A SOCIAL RECESSION
There have been calls by Members of Parliament (MPs) to resume activities for seniors, but this will likely not take place any time soon.
“I am afraid it will be a while longer before we do that, to protect the seniors. Seniors are of particular concern to us,” Health Minister Mr Gan Kim Yong said in Parliament in March.
Dr Tsoi also cautioned that it is important to take steps now before the potential consequences from isolation develop.
“Researchers have found that chronic loneliness is associated with a greater risk of heart disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. It’s also associated with a shorter life span. Being lonely raises mortality more than obesity or sedentary living does.”
In the end, humans are social beings, Dr Tsoi pointed out.
“We should continue to let (isolated seniors) know they are loved and cared, so that they do not necessarily feel lonely even when they are staying alone.”
He added new technologies like teleconferencing can help – a solution that Lions Befrienders agrees with.
Equipping the elderly at risk with basic tools like mobile phones and WiFi can help them be digitally-savvy and lead a more independent and empowered life, Lions Befrienders said.
READ: Commentary: Four ways seniors can stay connected during COVID-19
“WHERE CAN I GO?”
Some elderly are also being roped in – with their safety in mind – to help with national efforts to tackle the coronavirus.
RSVP Singapore, a volunteer group comprising of seniors, said their volunteers were involved in a nationwide initiative to distribute hand sanitisers to the public and to pack essentials like masks for frontline transport workers.
“We have received much positive feedback from our volunteers, who have enjoyed their volunteering sessions,” the chairman of RSVP Singapore, Mr Koh Juay Meng, PBM said.
Madam Koh too has learned other ways to cope with the heightened isolation by talking to her friends over the phone, singing and watching television.
“I watch the Chinese channel, the (Tamil) channel, the Malay channel. I watch them all now,” she laughed.
WATCH: Can Instagram ease the loneliness of being old in Singapore?
When asked if she wanted to meet her friends, Madam Koh immediately exclaimed: “Tak mau, tak mau,” a Malay phrase to express reluctance.
“Whether I like it or not, where can I go? If I go out, I might fall sick,” she said. “Cannot. Tak mau.”
It is not all bleak, however. Most seniors are understanding, Dr Tsoi said.
“For them, avoiding infection by the virus would be more important. They are usually more considerate and don’t want to be burdening others.
“For the majority of the healthy group, their resilience in character has been well-built as they age.”