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From The Gallery

Closing big gap between a model and an actual ageing society

Singapore may want to adopt, as a motto, the phrase "You're never too old to..."

It has the potential to fire people's imagination, as Nike's tagline "Just Do It" has, and fits a fast-ageing society.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong used it when he announced the Government's War on Diabetes yesterday, citing a United States study published in the New England Journal of Medicine which found that changes to diet, exercise regimes and other behaviours worked especially well in reducing the risk of diabetes among participants aged 60 and older.

Mr Gan's conclusion? "You're never too old to make the change and take back your health."

That was the thrust, too, of Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor's speech, in which she gave details of courses available to seniors aged 50 and older at a new National Silver Academy.

Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor told the House that "population ageing presents a unique opportunity for us to redefine ageing, and make Singapore an icon of successful ageing". That the Government has set itself such an ambitious target is good news for citizens, provided the reality on the ground matches the rhetoric.

They will be able to take selected modules offered by the Institute of Technical Education, polytechnics and universities - without sitting exams.

They will also receive subsidies for short courses offered by post-secondary institutes and voluntary welfare organisations.

They will be eligible for courses at the two art colleges - Lasalle and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts - and inter-generational learning programmes conducted by students on topics such as technology and music.

There will be 10,000 learning places across 500 courses this year and seniors can start signing up next month.

"We hope that the National Silver Academy can not only fulfil seniors' aspirations to keep learning, but also help shape a new mindset regarding ageing," Dr Khor said. "I think having seniors learn with younger students in the same classroom will foster inter-generational interactions and inspire our younger generation that learning does not stop at any age."

The academy attests to Singapore's intent to not just age well but also become a role model in the field. Indeed, Dr Khor kicked off her speech by declaring this ambition. She told the House that "population ageing presents a unique opportunity for us to redefine ageing, and make Singapore an icon of successful ageing".

That the Government has set itself such an ambitious target is good news for citizens, provided the reality on the ground matches the rhetoric.

For now, though, issues of under-capacity remain, and MPs highlighted several during the debate on the budget for the Health Ministry, including long waiting times at polyclinics and specialist outpatient clinics, and the shortfall in community-based home care and daycare services.

Dr Lily Neo (Jalan Besar GRC) even went so far as to say that "our home care services are almost non-existent at present".

She was "repeating" her call, she said, to make home care services available quickly so as to lessen the need for high-cost stays in acute hospitals.

Ms Joan Pereira (Tanjong Pagar GRC) wanted to know "if we will have enough eldercare centres, step-down community hospitals and hospices to cope with the increasing number of seniors".

"How will we recruit, train and retain enough volunteer carers, volunteer guides, nurses, nursing assistants, professional caregivers and therapists? What kind of support or resources can we provide their families and caregivers, especially if they have long-term patients or challenges like dementia?" she asked.

Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson) worried about an "epidemic of dementia" and asked what lessons could be learnt from countries like Japan that have already had to meet this challenge.

Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin cited a Lien Foundation survey which found that two in three people do not understand what palliative care is, and many doctors and nurses themselves feel unprepared to talk to patients about life-threatening illnesses.

She also spoke up for caregivers, this time citing a Ministry of Social and Family Development survey which found that those who cared for spouses or were of lower socio-economic status were more likely to suffer ill effects from caregiving.

"If we believe 'family should be the first line of support', we must keep finding how to better support the very people trying their utmost to live out that value - especially those who are less financially privileged," she said.

Responding, Dr Khor mapped out how the Health Ministry plans to meet these challenges in turn.

On home care, for instance, "we will continue to work hard to develop more infrastructure and manpower... and are on track to meet the projected demand of 10,000 home care and 6,200 daycare places by 2020", she said.

The Health Ministry is also piloting new packages that bundle home and centre-based care services together.

On dementia, that is now the focus of the ministry's community mental health efforts. There are three home intervention teams to support those who care for loved ones with dementia at home.

By 2020, it plans to have 3,000 dementia daycare places, 1,970 dementia nursing home beds and 160 elder-sitters. Indeed, Dr Khor's speech was replete with targets that the ministry has set for itself in the years ahead, to raise caregiving capacity.

At the same time, she appealed to the public to play their part: "We need to rally the whole Singapore kampung to play a part in supporting seniors with dementia and their caregivers within our communities."

Similarly, the ministry wants to raise befriending communities in different parts of the island to counter social isolation among the elderly. As Dr Khor acknowledged, Singapore can become an icon of ageing only if people come together to build "a nation for all ages".

For now though, there remains a big gap between ambition and reality.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 14, 2016, with the headline 'Closing big gap between a model and an actual ageing society'. Print Edition | Subscribe