The coffee shop in Bishan that has become the first to earn the dementia-friendly tag ought to spur more businesses and organisations to widen their customer service vistas. Ideally, all places with a general clientele should strive to be friendly to seniors, children and people with different abilities as well. The nudge towards such inclusiveness could well come from the presence of a growing pool of seniors here.
In the same way that economies value the youth dividend, societies could gain by tapping its silver dividend to foster greater civility and grace. This can come about when people take the time to interact with elders and the effort to tailor services to meet their needs.Those with dementia in particular ought to be the focus of attention. This is a condition that leads to progressive intellectual decline, afflicting one in 10 persons aged 60 and above, and one in two aged 85 and above. There are some 40,000 sufferers today and that figure is expected to double by 2030. Naturally, it would not do to just build hardware for them, such as more daycare centres and nursing homes. Alongside such infrastructure, there is a need for more dementia-friendly communities.
There are now five of them: Yishun, Hong Kah North, Queenstown, Bedok and MacPherson. In these towns, businesses and residents are trained to recognise and help those with dementia. In February, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced that $160 million would be set aside for community mental health efforts over five years, including the growth of more dementia-friendly towns. Funds are necessary but not sufficient to develop an ecosystem where seniors with dementia can not only age in place but do so with dignity. Partnerships between public, private and people sectors are key, as the work of reaching out and providing training is resource intensive.
In the case of the Bishan coffee shop, its owner and stallholders worked with the Lien Foundation's Forget Us Not(FUN) initiative to redesign the premises and be trained as dementia friends. FUN has trained close to 18,800 dementia friends from 86 businesses, government agencies, schools, places of worship and voluntary groups. Still, compared to other ageing societies, Singapore has some catching up to do. Japan, a pioneer in this area, has 8.8 million dementia friends, or 20 times more per capita.
The ultimate goal must be to shape a society where citizens look out for each other spontaneously. In crowded settings, people tend to be wary about offering help or accepting unsolicited attention. Seniors might be the right group to help dissolve such social barriers by being more open to those they meet on the street. Their gentler manners and chattiness could encourage others to show concern and demonstrate Singapore-style habits of graciousness.