Ang Mo Kio ward aims to train community to tackle seniors' mental health issues

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (centre) at the opening of the Care Network-Living Well initiative at Cheng San Community Club. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - What seemed like a typical hoarding case in MP Nadia Ahmad Samdin's ward in Ang Mo Kio turned out to be a symptom of deeper underlying personal issues, she and her team found out when they went to speak to the elderly resident.

"We found out that it's because of a very tragic death that happened in her life a couple of decades ago, and she was never able to receive the help that she needed to move on from it," said Ms Nadia.

The desire to equip the community with both awareness and skills to tackle such mental health issues among seniors gave birth to the Care Network-Living Well initiative in her Cheng San-Seletar ward.

Launched on Sunday (Dec 12), with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong - also an Ang Mo Kio MP - in attendance, the network pulls together government agencies, social service agencies and schools within the ward to train volunteers and pilot initiatives with the aim of improving the well-being and quality of life of residents.

Ms Nadia told The Straits Times that while mental health awareness has increased during the pandemic, it has remained largely a youth buzzword with not much chatter around seniors.

"The reality is that with Covid-19, the seniors are the ones with the least access to the outside world," she said.

"A lot of them are very isolated, lonely… and very worried about going out and interacting."

Ms Nadia pointed to a report in July by suicide prevention centre Samaritans of Singapore, revealing that there were 154 suicide deaths last year among those aged 60 and above - the highest figure since 1991 and a 26 per cent increase from 2019.

She said she wanted to add knowledge within the community that goes beyond explanatory talks on topics such as dementia and depression; and to amplify existing efforts to better support both seniors and caregivers.

On Sunday, about 130 grassroots and community volunteers, as well as representatives from government agencies, attended workshops on psychological first aid and mental wellness.

These are not one-off events and Cheng San-Seletar is planning a mental health curriculum - replete with core and elective modules - over the next year.

Cheng San Community Club will also introduce a Care-Free Art Corner to provide residents an outlet to express themselves and manage their stress.

It includes a "Tree of Hope" filled with motivational messages, now including one by PM Lee who wrote: "Love yourself and stay well to take care of others!"

Under the Care Network, the elder-focused Project Silver Sunshine will mark out seven "dementia go-to points" within the ward as resource and help centres, and for the public to take people living with dementia who may appear lost to seek help there.

The project also aims to pilot in the second quarter of next year a bus-looping service for seniors to access common locations, alongside initiatives to start an adult diaper fund and to engage hawkers and Singapore Post to be involved in the wider effort.

For example, said Ms Nadia, a sticker could be used to indicate a senior's house, so a mailman who notices letters accumulating could alert the authorities in case something is amiss.

Cheng San volunteer Naveen Kumar, 26, attended the psychological first aid workshop on Sunday.

For the past two years, the master's student in mechanical engineering has helped with food distribution exercises for needy residents, and often finds the elderly in particular are keen to open up and share their thoughts.

"Sometimes it is clear they are mentally affected," said Mr Kumar.

"This workshop will be helpful in learning how to better understand their mental state and aid them."

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