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Volunteers can help seniors maintain dignity

As a volunteer at the Society for the Aged Sick (SAS) for the past six years, I found last Sunday's feature on care options for the elderly in Singapore relevant and meaningful ("Growing old: Should you be worried?").

While nursing home workers are expected to follow stringent protocols to meet their residents' basic needs, there is also room for flexibility to empower the residents. This was illustrated in the article on Madam Chew Eng Huay ("Right at home in a nursing home"; last Sunday), which showed how she was given leeway to cook and share desserts in the Ren Ci nursing home.

In SAS, functionally independent residents are given autonomy to contribute. One resident folds napkins for fellow residents during mealtimes. Another motivates others during physiotherapy sessions.

With the advent of the silver tsunami comes volunteering opportunities.

I concur with the view of Tsao Foundation's director of community relations, Ms Doris Low, that volunteering is a way to support one another in an ageing society ("Ageing in place: More support for seniors living at home"; last Sunday).

There are some considerations before embarking on this journey.

Volunteers should contribute according to the needs of the organisations. They can, for example, make monetary donations for services such as transport and haircuts for the seniors.

Volunteers may also zoom in on the individual needs of the elderly.

Forming friendships is crucial to sustainable volunteering, as opposed to episodic volunteering.

This is especially so for residents who do not have family or friends, or are weary of well-meaning individuals who drop by only once a year.

Interacting with the elderly - especially those with multiple medical conditions - can be challenging. Volunteers must be cognizant of the common geriatric issues faced by seniors, such as incontinence, immobility, instability (when they are prone to falls) and intellectual impairment (such as dementia).

These features of ageing require patience and care, but they should not be seen as a barrier to volunteering.

Experts have said it is not death that the very old fear, but what comes before that - losing their hearing, memory, best friends and way of life.

Volunteers can aid our elderly in active and gracious ageing, by helping them to maintain dignity and autonomy in their lives.

Paul Sim Ruiqi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 13, 2016, with the headline 'Volunteers can help seniors maintain dignity'. Print Edition | Subscribe