Regular visits a key pillar in prevention of elders' suicide

Simple, low-key and regular visits by volunteers can be the first step in getting the isolated elderly to take part in social activities, says Mr Tan Chuan-Jin. The Health Promotion Board is also teaching seniors social-emotional and self-care skills
Simple, low-key and regular visits by volunteers can be the first step in getting the isolated elderly to take part in social activities, says Mr Tan Chuan-Jin. The Health Promotion Board is also teaching seniors social-emotional and self-care skills and how to seek help if necessary.ST FILE PHOTO

Minister says causes are often complex, and calls for whole-of-government approach

With 3,000 Pioneer Generation Ambassadors regularly visiting the elderly, the Government has found that some seniors are happy to have someone to talk to even though they are living with their families.

This indicates that even those who are not living alone may feel disengaged, said Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin. The information can help the Government in directing volunteers to pay such elderly folk regular visits, he added.

Such befriending services are one of the key pillars in the prevention of suicide among the elderly.

An average of 116 people older than 60 committed suicide each year between 2011 and 2015, Mr Tan told the House yesterday when replying to Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan. They formed almost 30 per cent of the average 415 suicides that took place annually during the period.

Suicides in this age group have been creeping up, from 95 in 2010 to 126 in 2014.

While "the trends aren't picking up in a big way", Mr Tan Chuan-Jin said: "Every death from suicide is one death too many. We should endeavour to try and prevent it."

Grassroots organisations are a valuable set-up for suicide prevention, especially the Pioneer Generation Office, because of the information they gather during interactions with the elderly, he said.

"How do we then pull the information together so that we can then direct efforts at befriending in a lot more targeted and effective manner?"

He added that there needs to be a whole-of-government approach because suicides are often complex and multifaceted.

"There are social issues, there are relationship issues, family issues, mental health issues, and sometimes a combination of various factors that causes individuals to take their own lives," he noted.

He said the Government is addressing the issue in three ways.

First, the Health Promotion Board is teaching seniors social- emotional and self-care skills and how to seek help if necessary.

Second, senior activity centres conduct social activities and home visits to reach out to elderly people staying in rental flats. There are also befriending programmes, in which volunteers visit seniors regularly.

The third effort is crisis response. Groups such as the Samaritans of Singapore and the Institute of Mental Health have 24-hour hotlines for those in distress.

Mr Tan urged people to seek help early "when feeling overwhelmed and emotionally distressed".

Three MPs, including Dr Intan Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) and Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun, asked if more could be done to involve the elderly in community events.

Mr Tan said volunteers from various backgrounds are sought by his ministry to provide befriending services in various languages.

On drawing out the isolated elderly, he added: "Sometimes, it's just a question of regular visitation... low- key, simple, weekly, fortnightly befriending visitation goes a very long way and that becomes a bridge to the other activities that we have."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2017, with the headline 'Regular visits a key pillar in prevention of elders' suicide'. Print Edition | Subscribe