Expanded drive to find out what Singapore seniors need

More volunteers will be recruited to visit those aged 65 and older at least once a year

From August 2016 to September 2017, more than 70 per cent or some 350,000 seniors have been visited at least once by ambassadors. PHOTO: ST FILE

A national drive is under way to find out the specific needs of different seniors, in a move to explain and refine policies relevant to them.

The effort will see all Singaporeans aged 65 and older getting at least one visit a year from volunteers, who will help them understand schemes such as the Silver Support Scheme and how to take charge of their well-being.

Currently, there are about 3,000 of these Pioneer Generation Ambassadors, and the plan is to add 10 per cent more this year, said the Pioneer Generation Office (PGO), which oversees their work.

This army of volunteers will increase "in tandem with the growing population of senior citizens", the PGO told The Straits Times, noting that by 2030, one in four citizens, or more than 900,000 Singaporeans, will be aged 65 and older.

Experts like sociologist Tan Ern Ser see the move as a way to mitigate inter-generational tensions that could arise from the younger working population feeling burdened by rising spending on eldercare needs.

Associate Professor Tan of the National University of Singapore said: "If seniors can stay healthy, remain gainfully employed and have sufficient savings, the need to keep raising taxes and exploring other means to fund senior programmes would be reduced, thereby dampening the potential for inter-generational 'warfare'."

The PGO also sees value in tapping seniors as volunteers, and is actively recruiting. Forty per cent of its active ambassadors are aged 60 and older. Since the ambassador programme started four years ago, volunteers' roles have expanded.

Initially, they were trained to explain the $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package - introduced in 2014 to help with the healthcare bills of seniors born in 1949 or earlier, and who became citizens before 1987.

Today, trained in soft skills and policy knowledge, they lend a listening ear and take in seniors' feedback as well. And instead of helping only pioneers, who are aged 69 or older this year, the ambassadors' target group has expanded to include all from age 65.

Housewife Somasundaram Saradha Devi, 47, a volunteer in Bishan, welcomes the expanded role. She visits families three to four times a week. Some are hostile on the first visit, venting their frustrations with the Government.

"We try to persuade and console them," she explained. "When we go the following years to tell them about different schemes, they are very welcoming."

She gets information on their concerns and lifestyle habits. The data helps shape the work of the PGO, which analyses them and has focus group discussions before deciding on new topics to raise with seniors.

From August 2016 to last September, more than 70 per cent or some 350,000 seniors have been visited at least once by ambassadors.

For some, like retired hairdresser Leong Yew Heng, 85, PGO staff and volunteers are the first people they call when faced with a problem.

Last December, her husband struggled to walk as his legs swelled. She called the PGO, and its staff went to her Toa Payoh flat and have since returned to check on the couple about six times.

"I am thankful to them. I was helpless because of the language barriers," said Madam Leong, who does not speak English and needed help taking her husband to the hospital.

Mr Gerald Woon, director of public relations agency Cogent Communications, said that while the PGO's personalised approach requires greater effort, "it is effective as information is presented at the seniors' doorsteps instead of expecting them to go online and search for it".

Ms Karen Koh, 26, who works in public relations and whose parents are approaching 65, said: "It is reassuring to know they can clarify my parents' doubts, and there is someone looking out for their well-being while they are alone at home."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 19, 2018, with the headline Expanded drive to find out what Singapore seniors need. Subscribe