If the elderly need help, let's provide what they need

An elderly couple in Jurong East. The Straits Times Editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang says there are three good reasons why fellow Singaporeans should help the old people. ST FILE PHOTO
An elderly couple in Jurong East. The Straits Times Editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang says there are three good reasons why fellow Singaporeans should help the old people. ST FILE PHOTO

It is Chinese New Year, and a good time to talk about elderly people.

They have always had a special place during this festive period, when families show respect to them in time-honoured tradition.

For Singapore, it has also been a time when more people are asking for more to be done for them.

The Government has said it will be introducing a Silver Support Scheme during the Budget statement tomorrow.

When the Prime Minister first mentioned it last year, he said it was aimed at helping the bottom 10 per cent to 20 per cent of the elderly who have limited means because they did not save up enough in their Central Provident Fund accounts, or are without family support.

Together with the Pioneer Generation Package, these schemes signal a growing acceptance that older Singaporeans need more help from the community.

It is a welcome development and part of how the Government's views on welfare and assistance have changed in recent years.

As more such schemes are being introduced, it is important for Singaporeans to have a common understanding on the broad approach to this issue.

You could start with answering the basic question: Why do we want to help the old?

I can think of three good reasons.

First, it is about helping the weak and vulnerable in society.

Old age can bring many health and psychological problems that make it hard for the elderly to cope with everyday life.

As individuals, we instinctively want to help these people whenever we can.

As a society, we also feel some moral obligation to do so, and it reinforces the sense that we belong to a community that looks after one another.

We feel it is a mark of a gracious and generous society.

Moreover, when help is extended to the old, it does not create the sort of problems that make many wary of over-generous state help.

There is no danger of creating a crutch mentality or eroding the spirit of self-reliance.

Old people who need help cannot help growing old, not because they are lazy or unwilling to help themselves.

We can help them without feeling guilty or anxious about the unintended consequences of welfare.

The only question is whether there are enough resources to do so and what form of help to best give.

The second reason to help the old is very different from the first and requires us to think about the old in a completely different way.

It is about the special skill and talent they possess precisely because they are old and have acquired life-long experiences.

This might sound counter-intuitive because we have a tendency to think of the old as being less useful and dependent, with little to contribute.

In his book, The Wisdom Paradox, the neuropsychologist Elkhonon Goldberg argues that the ageing brain is sharper in several key areas though it might lose out in others, such as memory retention and speed.

One strength of an older brain: pattern recognition. Older people, for example, might be better at sizing up situations and solving problems without going through the step-by-step reasoning that younger people are quicker at.

They can connect the dots better because they are able to see the connections, perhaps drawing from past experience in dealing with similar problems.

He writes: "It is time to stop thinking of the ageing of our minds and our brains solely in terms of mental losses, and losses alone. The ageing of the mind is equally about gains. As we age, we may lose the power of our memory or sustained concentration. But as we grow older, we may gain wisdom or at least expertise and competence."

Other researchers have drawn similar conclusions when trying to find out more about what it means to be wise rather than merely smart or quick.

Dr Goldberg's particular insight is that the brain changes with age to bring out these special powers of perception.

Another interesting study has to do with whether older or younger people feel happier.

The conventional wisdom is that old people are less happy, and that we become unhappier as we age.

In fact, this isn't true.

A 2006 study based on how people of different ages assessed their own happiness found the older groups reporting higher levels of personal happiness than younger ones.

What this all means is that both in terms of their capacity to exercise wisdom and their attitude towards life, older people have much going for them.

If we recognise these positive attributes and change the way we view them, we might be better able to appreciate that they have much to contribute to the well-being of the community.

We can then discuss how best to help them do so.

The third reason to do more for the elderly might seem so obvious it risks being overlooked.

It is that the old have a limited time left, so we should do a lot for them.

This might seem like stating the obvious, but understanding it at a deeper level requires us to value people differently from how we usually do.

It doesn't matter who they are or what they do.

The fact is that they have less time left, want to be able to make full use of it, and we should help them do so.

None of these three reasons has anything to do with the contributions that old people might have made when they were younger.

It should not matter what their contributions were, or whether they belong to the pioneer generation.

Doing more for the elderly is about appreciating their special place in society, and valuing them for who they are.

Happy Chinese New Year.

hanfk@sph.com.sg