Group provides a listening ear for seniors

THEY went to try and open doors for lonely elderly people - but ended up getting them slammed in their faces.

Now Mr James Loh and wife Jennifer Khoo are welcomed warmly by around 120 of 200 residents at Block 100, Aljunied Crescent.

The couple have a passion for serving old folk, and recognise that while most senior citizens have their material needs taken care of, many remain lonely.

They began Mustardseed Outreach Program last January, going door-to-door telling residents they had nothing to give but their company.

Block 100 was chosen because it was made up of one-room rental units.

Account manager Mr Loh, 33, was greeted by several people when The Straits Times interviewed him and his fellow volunteers at the block's void deck.

"Shuai ge (handsome guy)," said one old woman in Mandarin, smiling as she passed by.

Mr Loh is part of a group of volunteers who visit the block's senior citizens once a month, just to spend time with them.

The going was tough at first, with sceptical residents slamming doors in their faces. But the group stayed committed and returned month after month.

On festive occasions such as Chinese New Year and Hari Raya, the group celebrates by giving out halal foods like dumplings and mooncakes.

The secular group, which is not affiliated to any organisation, has about 15 to 20 committed volunteers who were introduced through friends and colleagues.

By now they have become familiar with the residents after listening to stories about their families, worries and past experiences.

Sales account executive Siti Rabaah, 26, said: "There's a lady who tries to matchmake me. She asks me if I've found a guy, but she's very nice about it.

"She just needs someone to chat and spend time with her because she feels bored living alone in a flat. She talks about her children and bakes some pastries and offers me drinks."

The group also goes the extra mile, helping a fourth-floor resident fix a faulty front-door padlock after discovering the petite 65-year-old had been climbing in and out of her flat through a gap in the grille for months.

Communication barriers are one of the group's biggest challenges, as some senior citizens can speak only one dialect, said Mr Loh.

The volunteers try to assign themselves to senior citizens whose dialect they speak. Between them they know Malay, Mandarin and several Chinese dialects including Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew and Hainanese.

Mustardseed also organises visits to old folk's homes four times a year.

But it is hard to find and retain committed volunteers for the monthly visits, as they are not everyone's cup of tea. They yield few tangible benefits and require a lot of time and energy. A lot of young people are also unable to speak dialects, said Mr Loh and Madam Khoo.

But 35-year-old Agnes Tan, who is in pharmaceutical sales, is not giving up. "It's very humbling every time I come. You know that whatever little you do means so much to them. Some tell me, 'call me first, next time you come'. They want to be available for you," she said.

To contact the group, write to

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.