After caring for her ailing brother for a decade, Madam Wee Ah Bee sank into depression when he died from a stroke six years ago and her husband was diagnosed with cancer.
"I felt useless as there wasn't anything more for me to do," said Madam Wee, who then spent most of her time cooped up in a one-room rental flat in Geylang Bahru with her husband.
She recovered after six months of counselling by social workers from the nearby Touch Seniors Activity Centre and Institute of Mental Health, and later decided to channel her energies into helping others.
Now 71, she visits frail and lonely seniors in her estate every week and accompanies them on medical appointments, under a programme piloted six months ago, in which elderly beneficiaries are trained in befriending work.
The centre, which started its second round of training last month, has roped in 35 such volunteers so far.
Getting the elderly who were once in need to reach out to their peers is a practice that is catching on among social service organisations here.
The idea is to get the once needy to challenge themselves by helping others. In doing so, they gain confidence and perspective when tackling their own troubles.
Touch Seniors Activity Centre director Julia Lee said: "They overcome fear and self-doubt and in learning how to come up with solutions to help others, they are empowering themselves too."
Separately, 15 residents of the AWWA Community Home for Senior Citizens have been learning taiji with the help of volunteers from OCBC Bank. These residents will impart the moves to others in need from next month.
Ms Koh Ching Ching, head of group corporate communications at OCBC Bank, said that "beyond financial challenges, the lack of self-worth is one major issue" for beneficiaries.
To address this, the element of beneficiaries helping others was introduced. Said Ms Koh: "The ability to do something for someone else gives our beneficiaries a powerful sense of hope and accomplishment."
This new model of volunteerism goes one step beyond the current practice of simply getting capable elderly volunteers to help their struggling peers.
For example, 25 senior volunteers from non-profit group RSVP Singapore engage their peers from one-room rental flats in Toa Payoh with exercises and mind games.
Another 81 senior volunteers from Yah! Community College, which promotes lifelong learning and volunteerism, visit the elderly from 280 households in Marine Parade, Telok Blangah, Taman Jurong and Bedok South, and organise activities for them at void decks.
Its principal Samuel Ng said of the emerging practice: "Many social service providers are afraid of creating a mindset of dependency, so this is powerful because the beneficiaries' own hurt enables them to empathise and help others, yet they themselves are being healed at the same time.
"We always talk about the haves reaching out to the have-nots. But we forget that the have-nots are still able to give."
But it may be better to have a mixed team of volunteers, he suggested. "Volunteering may cause more confusion or trauma for beneficiaries whose conditions are not stable," he said.
Volunteering has helped at least Madam Wee. She has had a more positive outlook on life since she began visiting her neighbours. "I dwell less on the sad memories and I am happy when the other elderly folk are happy," she said.