Yishun set to be first ‘dementia-friendly’ town

To make Yishun a dementia-friendly town, about 2,000 people - from students to frontline staff in hospitals and businesses to mosque and church members - have been trained to spot people with dementia and to interact with and help or refer them to ai
To make Yishun a dementia-friendly town, about 2,000 people - from students to frontline staff in hospitals and businesses to mosque and church members - have been trained to spot people with dementia and to interact with and help or refer them to aid agencies.ST PHOTO:ALPHONSUS CHERN
With training and awareness of dementia, people like McDonald's restaurant general managers Jim Neo, 43, and Lee Ai Tze, 34, will be able to understand and support sufferers and caregivers.
With training and awareness of dementia, people like McDonald's restaurant general managers Jim Neo, 43, and Lee Ai Tze, 34, will be able to understand and support sufferers and caregivers.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

2,000 people trained so far in community support project

Madam Chan Poh Keng, 86, was once almost caught for shoplifting because she took and ate a banana from a provision shop but forgot to pay for it.

Several times, she had been lost for hours because she could not remember the way home.

Her daughter, Ms Mok Leng Chan, 65, who has been caring for her for the past 16 years, said: "It is so frustrating for her that she hits her head with her hands to try to recall. Caring for her became so tiring that I once even thought of killing myself with her."

To support people with dementia and caregivers like Ms Mok, Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH) and Lien Foundation are spearheading efforts to foster Singa-pore's first dementia-friendly community, in Yishun.

So far, about 2,000 people in the town - from school students to frontline staff in hospitals and businesses to mosque and church members - have been trained on how to spot those with dementia and how to interact with and help or refer them to aid agencies. Dementia guides - which provide information about the condition - will be distributed to 58,000 households and businesses.

Dementia-friendly town: 10% of Yishun residents are elderly

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said last year that tackling dementia needs to go beyond having the "hardware" - such as infrastructure - to fostering stronger community support and creating dementia-friendly communities.

Those who have been trained in Yishun include staff from businesses such as McDonald's and retailers at Northpoint shopping centre as well as students and volunteers who patrol the town regularly.

Organisations such as Sheng Siong supermarket chain and National Library Board are expected to be involved soon.

Yishun was chosen to test out the concept of a dementia-friendly community because it has a significant number of elderly residents. It also has the community resources - such as a geriatric centre at KTPH - to support them.

About 10 per cent or 20,000 residents in Yishun are aged 65 and above. One in 10 people aged 60 and above in Singapore has dementia and the condition strikes half of those aged 85 and beyond, according to findings from a large-scale study released by the Institute of Mental Health last year.

With more training and awareness of dementia, it is hoped that Yishun and, later, other communities will be able to understand, embrace and support sufferers and caregivers in their midst.

Mr Lee Poh Wah, chief executive of Lien Foundation, said: "Often, persons with dementia are stigmatised. The shame associated with dementia is exacerbated when people do not understand its symptoms and react poorly towards dementia sufferers."

With the training, it is hoped that if a person with dementia gets lost, a policeman or student can show him the way home. Or, if the person takes items from a supermarket without paying, its staff will not assume he is shoplifting.

Dr Philip Yap, director of KTPH's geriatric centre, said: "In Yishun, they can get around safely and continue to participate meaningfully in their usual routines because members of their community, be it a favourite neighbour, shopkeeper or local policeman, can understand and assist them."

One person for whom training has been helpful is Nanyang Polytechnic student L. Sakthisvaran, 22, who often sees an old woman shouting at the top of her voice in his neighbourhood. After learning to spot signs of dementia, he now knows what to do. He took down her children's contact numbers and lets them know where she is whenever he sees her.

Such dementia-friendly communities will help the elderly avoid having to stay in institutions such as hospitals or nursing homes and live at home instead. Research has shown that having them at home would be less costly to society.

Said Mr Lee: "Because of its prevalence and high cost to society, we need to make dementia-friendly communities the 'new normal' in Singapore, starting with Yishun."

Organisations or individuals who wish to find out more about dementia or be trained in responding to those who have it can sign up at www.forgetusnot.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 21, 2016, with the headline 'Help for dementia patients in Yishun'. Print Edition | Subscribe