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Tap neighbourly spirit to help seniors in need

The Straits Times | Loh Keng Fatt | Tuesday, Apr 22, 2014

My first job was as a welfare officer at the then Ministry of Social Affairs, and one project my section rolled out in the mid-1980s was called the Befrienders scheme.

Even before Singapore's ageing population had become a major worry and talking point, it was noticed that older people who lived alone or with another elderly person could benefit from some form of community support.

The scheme roped in neighbours to keep an eye on the old folk whom most volunteers were already familiar with.

Since they lived in the same block or nearby, both parties were more likely to build and sustain rapport, with the befriender helping to care for the senior by also accompanying him to visit the doctor or on an outing.

My colleagues had found that this model worked better than having volunteers from outside the neighbourhood visit the seniors occasionally.

Some old folk were suspicious of such outsiders - even well-meaning ones. They had their pride and were not comfortable opening their flats and sharing their personal problems with unfamiliar faces.

But a neighbour was different and would be close at hand if needed in an emergency.

The scheme was rolled out in a number of places - Kreta Ayer, Tiong Bahru and Kolam Ayer, among them - and was handed over to three Lions Clubs in Singapore under a "many helping hands" initiative by the then Ministry of Community Development - in 1995.

Today, the Lions Befrienders - arguably the country's largest direct service voluntary welfare organisation - has about 1,000 volunteers who keep tabs on some 3,000 vulnerable seniors.

I was happy the other day to find out that a similar project had also taken root in the South East District since last July.

Called the Neighbours For Active Living Programme, it has signed up 50 volunteers to reach out to more than 200 elderly folk - including the frail and those who live alone - in Bedok, Siglap and Marine Parade.

Volunteers are matched with seniors in their neighbourhood and their responsibilities include reminding the elderly to take their medicines and go for health checks. I presume, if there's a need, they would not mind taking the elderly person to the hospital or helping to run some urgent errands.

While this scheme targets those who live alone or with another aged person, there is scope to expand it to include seniors whose children live with them but are away at work for most of the day.

The issue of adults looking after their aged parents has lately spawned the question of whether the Government should come up with eldercare leave.

Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob said the Government should seriously consider such paid days off for workers, especially those coping with caring for their children as well as elderly parents.

Here is where programmes like the Befrienders scheme could plug the gap by meeting the needs of elderly folk who are not entirely helpless but may welcome help to get to their medical appointments, for example.

The volunteers could step in when the elderly person's family members cannot spare the time from work or other commitments.

But what can a family with elderly members do if such schemes are not available in their neighbourhood?

The simple answer is that they can also depend on the goodwill of neighbours, but they need to invest time and effort to know them better besides exchanging rudimentary pleasantries.

My mother, who lives alone, does just that, to the extent that she and some neighbours have become close and exchange hampers for Chinese New Year and even go on holidays together.

I have no doubt that her friends can be relied on to come to her help in an emergency, if my three sisters who live nearby cannot be contacted immediately since they work.

And my sisters and I would gladly do the same for any of my mum's friends, if they were in need.

This article was published on April 20 in The Straits Times.

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