Religion may be a lifeline for some low-income seniors

Local study finds those who are religious have a lower risk of visiting the emergency room

Seniors in rental flats who are not religious have a higher risk of visiting the emergency room than those who are religious, a local study has found.

It also noted that seniors in rental flats who are employed have a lower risk of going to the emergency room or being hospitalised than those who are not working.

The study, which surveyed residents aged 60 and above in public rental housing blocks between December 2016 and March 2017, aims to plug a gap when it comes to information on the socio-demographic characteristics of patients who are the most in need.

It was led by Associate Professor Lee Kheng Hock, a senior consultant at Singapore General Hospital's (SGH) department of family medicine and continuing care.

Previous studies have noted that people in rental flats are at higher risk of suffering poor health outcomes compared with others.

This implies that those on lower incomes may need more help, as a household's total gross income must generally not exceed $1,500 a month to qualify for a rental flat under the Public Rental Scheme.

But there is a lack of research on which segments of this lower-income group are the most at risk, the study said.

The study of 928 Singaporeans and permanent residents, of whom 40 per cent were female, found that about 20 per cent identified as atheists.

They lived in 12 public rental housing blocks - in Chin Swee, Jalan Kukoh, Jalan Minyak and York Hill precincts in central Singapore, with 10.5 per cent having been admitted to hospital in the previous six months and about 9 per cent having visited the emergency room in the previous six months.

ACCESS TO SUPPORT

Having a religion may have helped low-income residents improve mental resilience and coping.

DR LOW LIAN LENG, one of the researchers.

Data analysis also showed that those who felt loneliness were more likely to have visited emergency rooms in the previous six months.

"Perhaps lonely residents in disadvantaged rental flat populations utilise healthcare more frequently because smaller social networks provide less reserves of support to fall back on in the event of illness," the study said.

Dr Low Lian Leng, one of the researchers, said organisations can build stronger social networks to help such residents.

Being religious was also associated with lower risks of emergency room visits, while those who were non-religious faced higher risks.

"Having a religion may have helped low-income residents improve mental resilience and coping," said Dr Low, who is also a consultant at SGH's department of family medicine and continuing care.

Alternatively, residents with religious affiliations may also have access to community services provided by religious organisations, such as free clinics or befriender services, the study said.

Dr Lily Neo, a general practitioner and an MP for Jalan Besar GRC, said she was not surprised by this finding. Those who are religious may have more social and community support, given that many would visit a religious institution regularly.

"You are less likely to become isolated and develop depression, which can affect your physical health too as those with depression may become less active," she said.

The researchers conducted a repeat survey last year with the same group of participants. They are now analysing the data.

"We will be able to evaluate if having a religious belief and other factors (identified in the study) continue to have beneficial health effects," said Dr Low.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 29, 2019, with the headline 'Religion may be a lifeline for some low-income seniors'. Subscribe