Friendship sparks new zest for life

As a befriender to seniors, Madam Tan Guek Kew has helped her peers gain a fresh perspective in their golden years

After her husband died at the start of Chinese New Year last year, the usually sociable Madam Lim Rui Yong, 78, struggled to cope.

She withdrew from her friends and shut herself off at home, allowing only family to visit her.

Madam Lim says in Mandarin: "I kept my door and windows shut. I didn't want to talk to anyone or leave my flat because I was afraid people would ask me about my husband. I didn't want to talk about his death because I couldn't accept it."

She remained in this state for months, until Madam Tan Guek Kew reached out to her in May last year.

The 64-year-old Madam Tan volunteers with the Community Befriending Programme and Madam Lim's long-time neighbour and friend was one of the first two seniors she befriended. The neighbour persuaded Madam Lim to open her doors to Madam Tan.

At first, Madam Lim found it hard to open up. She would cry at the mention of her husband.

She says: "I appreciate how patient and supportive Guek Kew is. When I couldn't control my tears, she would sit with me and let me express my grief."

The two bonded over time.

Madam Tan says in Mandarin: "I understand what it is like to feel alone and not have friends to confide in."

She overcame her insecurities to become a volunteer. She lacked self-confidence and used to feel anxious in social situations.

That changed in 2013, after she signed up for courses on active ageing at YAH!, a flagship programme by Montfort Care to change society's mindset about ageing and seniors.

Madam Tan recalls: "Learning about active ageing gave me a new lease of life. I learnt to communicate and connect with people. I realised that, as a senior, I can still contribute to society. I want to help other seniors."

She began volunteering with GoodLife!, another programme under Montfort Care, that promotes and improves the overall well-being of seniors.

Montfort Care is one of 14 community organisations in several constituencies which run the Community Befriending Programme. Under the programme, volunteers befriend seniors to keep loneliness and isolation at bay.

Last May, Madam Tan signed up to be a volunteer befriender and received training. She was then assigned two seniors to befriend. She visits each senior twice a month for about an hour each time.

Her visits helped Madam Lim come to terms with her grief and open up to others. Over time, she encouraged Madam Lim to join a morning exercise group and sign up for courses to learn new skills.

Today, Madam Lim has a renewed zest for life. She says: "When my husband died, I didn't feel like living without him. Now I want to live because there is so much I want to learn and Guek Kew has inspired me to do voluntary work."

Madam Tan adds: "It makes me happy to befriend other seniors and let them know it is possible to make new friends, learn new skills and spend our golden years meaningfully."

Those interested in signing up as a volunteer befriender can go to bit.ly/befriendasenior or call the Singapore Silver Line on 1800-650-6060 for more details.

•This series is an initiative under the Action Plan for Successful Ageing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 14, 2018, with the headline 'Friendship sparks new zest for life'. Print Edition | Subscribe