From Chromecast to Houseparty, some seniors embrace technology during the coronavirus

Dick and Daisie Yip take part in a Facebook livestream of their ukulele jam session with their regular ukulele group. PHOTO: COURTESY OF DICK AND DAISIE YIP

SINGAPORE - After meeting weekly for 12 years to play the ukulele together, Dick Yip & his Minstrels had to call off their Wednesday jam sessions because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The amateur group, which has about 50 active members, is part of Serangoon Community Club's wellness programme that encourages seniors to stay socially connected.

In lieu of meeting at the club, the group's founder Dick Yip, 72, moved their gatherings online, using Facebook's livestreaming function for the first time.

"We've had to rethink and improve our use of technology. The physical closeness is missing, but we are bonding through technology," says Mr Yip, a retired physical education teacher who has been using Facebook for more than 10 years.

He and his wife Daisie, 70, a part-time education consultant and lecturer, have two daughters and five grandsons.

With her help, he has digitised song sheets with chords that he customised to suit the Minstrels' skill levels. Practising their old favourites like Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit-Bag, the members - some of whom started Facebook accounts to take part - follow his scores and lyrics onscreen, playing together for more than an hour each time.

There have been many glitches. The sound has cut out, the screen has flipped upside down and there have been abrupt starts and stops.

But the livestreamed video sessions have been a success, expanding their reach and repertoire.

Starting on March 18, the number of jam sessions has risen from once to twice a week, drawing more than 100 views each time. Ukulele players Mr Yip knows, hailing from Taiwan, Scotland and Canada, sometimes join in.

Under the circuit breaker and other measures to curb the coronavirus, some seniors have been embracing technology previously unfamiliar to them.

To keep in touch with friends and family, they have been Zooming and livestreaming like many younger folk who are working from home.

But observers say the gap between these tech-savvy seniors and their less adept peers has widened as a result.

Self-isolating seniors who are unfamiliar with smartphones and the Internet may have become more alienated from the hyperconnected corona-reality, where the use of delivery apps and virtual communication has exploded.

Dr Natalie Pang, a senior lecturer in the communications and new media department at National University of Singapore, says: "The crisis has disrupted the time and space to adopt technology. It does not give seniors a lot of time to adapt, when they may have needed to be introduced and orientated to these platforms more gradually."

She adds that many seniors, who are shut in like most of Singapore, also lack the family and social contacts they may have relied on previously to learn new ways of using their digital devices.

Luckily for Mrs Priscilla Vargis, 70, her granddaughter, who visited her before the circuit breaker started on April 7, had taught her how to use Chromecast, a gadget for streaming Netflix, YouTube and other online content from a mobile device to one's television.

Priscilla Vargis takes part in a Facebook live-streamed ukulele jam session regularly, the brainchild of fellow senior Dick Yip. PHOTO: COURTESY OF PRISCILLA VARGIS

Recalling and carrying out her granddaughter's instructions, albeit with some difficulty, Mrs Vargis, a housewife, was able to broadcast Mr Yip's ukulele livestream sessions onto her 50-inch TV, where the bigger screen made it easier for her to view the score sheets.

Mrs Vargis, who has been with his ukulele group for four years, says: "The circuit breaker has taught me to be more persevering. Older people like me are not IT-savvy, we have to learn and practise to get it right. You get all worked up and frustrated when you can't do it."


Usually content to use media such as WhatsApp, Facebook and YouTube, the circuit breaker has compelled retired taxi driver Susan Lee, 64, to pick up different tech tools at an accelerated pace.

After booking an appointment with her hairdresser before hair salons were allowed to open last Tuesday, she recently scanned her first QR code at the salon, which kept track of the customers there.

Early this month, she had to learn Zoom to take part in a video conference for Buddhist prayers for Vesak Day, which involved scores of people around the world. She has since tried her hand at the Houseparty app, which enables group video chats.

Retiree Susan Lee has been embracing technology that is new to her. PHOTO: SUSAN LEE

Madam Lee, who found it easy to use Houseparty after mastering Zoom, exemplifies what some experts describe as a kind of virtuous circle when it comes to adopting technology.

Professor Lim Sun Sun, who teaches communication and technology at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), says: "The entry barriers are lower for those who are already using their smartphone for a range of functions. This experience makes it easier for these seniors to transition to using a wider variety of apps, opening up new social networking possibilities."

In contrast, elderly Singapore residents who do not own digital devices - or are isolated from family and friends who may have been able to teach them to make better use of their smartphone - are missing out on such channels of communication, adds Prof Lim. The Nominated Member of Parliament also heads the humanities, arts and social sciences department at SUTD.

Even elderly people who are living in an inter-generational household may not get the guidance they need in accessing technology in an increasingly digitalised Singapore.

Busy with work or school, their adult children or grandchildren may lack the time or patience to teach them these tools, leaving social services and government organisations to step into the breach, observers say.


Mr Kelvin Lee, manager at Touch Caregivers Support, Touch Community Services, points out that younger people may not understand the multi-layered apprehension some seniors feel towards learning new technology.

Besides not wanting to "bother" their children and grandchildren to teach them, they may also fear falling prey to fake news or scams, says Mr Lee.

Retired taxi driver Chew Po Ngee, 72, for example, used to be afraid that clicking on content shown on his smartphone screen would incur payment charges.

Taking part in a digital readiness programme for seniors organised by Touch last year gave him more confidence. To reduce the boredom of staying at home, he recently took part in Google Hangout and Zoom video chats with other seniors he knows, which were facilitated by the charity.

Chew Po Ngee (top row, second from right) engages in a Zoom meet-up session with fellow seniors, cyber wellness coaches and staff from Touch Community Services. PHOTO: COURTESY OF TOUCH COMMUNITY SERVICES

Mr Lee says: "The circuit breaker has given us the opportunity to reach out to a group of seniors who used to be closed to online options.

"They want to learn more, but are not confident enough to Google or YouTube the information they want. It's an open door they can't walk through yet."

Besides calling vulnerable seniors to check on them, Touch staff have connected with more than 120 elderly locals during the circuit breaker through a resource portal, Touchpoint News, via WhatsApp. The WhatsApp group has posts related to topics such as heritage news, nutrition and workouts, dementia prevention and hobbies like calligraphy and photography.

The Government also has resources online to help seniors during the coronavirus, when face-to-face interactions are sharply curtailed.

Over the next five months, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) expects to reach about 8,000 seniors through its Virtual Digital Clinics, which provide one-on-one assistance on digital matters, and its Digital Pods, which are free webinars offering digital skills.


Government data show that the elderly are becoming more IT literate.

Based on IMDA's Infocomm Usage In Households And By Individuals annual survey last year, at least 76 per cent of seniors, aged 60 and above, used an Internet-enabled feature phone or smartphone that year. In 2013, only 18 per cent of such seniors used these devices.

While housewife Julie Yen, 77, has a smartphone, she uses it only to make phone calls. She does not know how to forward WhatsApp messages or access the Internet on it.

Julie Yen, pictured holding her radio set, is among the seniors who are not tech-savvy. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SKYE YEO

Inspired in part by how Madam Yen sometimes falls asleep to the strains of old Chinese songs on the radio, her daughter, Dr Skye Yeo, 46, is helming an initiative, Project Audible Cheer, to distribute MP3 radio sets to underprivileged seniors, including beneficiaries of Lions Befrienders, a social service agency.

The portable units combine the functions of a radio with an MP3 player, which arts company 3Pumpkins is loading with senior-friendly songs and programmes in Mandarin, Chinese dialects, Malay and Tamil. An initial order of 700 sets will be delivered soon.

Dr Yeo, a psychologist who works with companies and individuals in the corporate sector, says: "This project can support seniors, who lack access to technology, in their emotional and mental well-being. They can also use the MP3 radio sets beyond the Covid-19 period."

Madam Yen says of her daughter's project: "At my age, I don't want to give myself pressure in learning about technology, which I can't absorb. If it's as simple as pressing a button, I'll use it."

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