They go knocking on seniors' doors

Pioneer Generation Ambassadors visit the elderly at home to explain healthcare benefits

Ms Gladys Ong and Nick Low were among Pioneer Generation Ambassadors who were treated to an appreciation dinner yesterday.
Ms Gladys Ong and Nick Low were among Pioneer Generation Ambassadors who were treated to an appreciation dinner yesterday.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Volunteers Nick Low, 16, and Gladys Ong, 48, knocked on the door of an elderly man's home repeatedly, but were greeted by an ominous silence. When the door finally opened, they saw a pale 73-year-old who told them he was suffering from piles and was bleeding.

He lived alone and was reluctant to go to hospital because he said he could not afford the charges.

After some persuasion, the pair took him to hospital in a taxi, which they paid for, and attended to him before he was warded.

Nick, a student at the Institute of Technical Education, continued to visit him after he was discharged.

He and Ms Ong are among 3,000 volunteers who had been trained to visit seniors at home under the Pioneer Generation Ambassador Programme. This is to explain the healthcare benefits they receive from the Government.

Last night, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong thanked these volunteers at a dinner at Gardens By The Bay. Mr Lee, citing Mr Low's unexpected encounter, said: "Such experiences also helped Nick to better understand our healthcare system and the needs of his own grandparents and family."

He praised the volunteers for drawing seniors into the community, ensuring their daily needs are met, helping them during emergencies and lending them an ear.

On their visits, the volunteers would explain to seniors their benefits under the Pioneer Generation Package, which subsidises their healthcare bills and MediShield Life, which provides health insurance for life.

Nick joined the programme last October. He would visit seniors about five times a week during his school holidays, and once or twice a week during term time. Each session is between three and six hours.

"I speak Hokkien and Cantonese fluently, so I thought that maybe I could help the community by being a Pioneer Generation Ambassador," he said.

The personalised approach of visiting seniors was adopted because one in 13 pioneers lives alone.

Eight in 10 of them do not visit existing community venues, such as community clubs or residents' committee centres, regularly.

Since the Pioneer Generation Office was set up last August, its ambassadors have reached out to 110,000 pioneers, or one-quarter of the 450,000 individuals aged 66 and older this year who were born here or became citizens before 1987.

The volunteers include students, retirees, housewives and professionals, with the youngest aged 15 and the oldest, 89. About 60 per cent of them them are aged between 46 and 65, while another 20 per cent are 65 and older.

Ms Ong, a housewife, said she struggled somewhat when translating medical and policy terms into Mandarin, Hokkien or Teochew.

Occasionally, they would encounter seniors who were unfriendly or suspicious. "If they refuse to engage, we will not force them. But for those who don't slam the door even though they're hostile, we explain the reason for our visit and they would listen," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2015, with the headline 'They go knocking on seniors' doors'. Subscribe