Why It Matters

A good recipe for social help

In a corner of Marine Parade lies a communal kitchen at the bottom of a rental block.

Every morning, about 50 elderly people who live alone come down to discuss what they would like to eat for lunch that day and organise themselves to buy the ingredients and cook the meal together.

It is a small and humble project, but the ideas behind it are visionary and ought to pave the way for how social assistance is rendered.

First, much of the social assistance schemes or programmes today work on a transactional or linear basis. The Government and service providers offer the handouts or services and the vulnerable receive them. This relationship may inadvertently reinforce a mindset of dependency and entitlement.

So instead of having volunteers dole out free meals from a soup kitchen or deliver packed food to their homes, this project encourages the seniors to participate and contribute.

The sense of empowerment that comes with the realisation that "I am still useful", as one elderly man puts it, is immense.

Second, social isolation is a very real issue for many old folk here. The number of seniors living alone is expected to grow from 35,000 in 2012 to 83,000 by 2030.

Yet the current well-meaning response to the needs of an ageing population is often to deliver a myriad of services right on the doorsteps of our elderly for their convenience.

Yes, a number of the elderly have mobility issues and they cannot do without these services. But a fair number of them are able enough to go downstairs, mix with their neighbours and help themselves, cooking or otherwise.

We often bemoan the cocooned, "strawberry" younger generation but we must be equally careful not to mollycoddle our old people. Metaphorically, social assistance should be the cushion when they fall but not the cushion that keeps them comfortably within four walls.

The open-concept kitchen in Marine Parade is a good start in tearing down those walls.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2016, with the headline 'A good recipe for social help'. Print Edition | Subscribe