Retired bartender Yong Chow Foo, who has no children, used to visit the Care Corner Senior Activity Centre in Woodlands every weekday to chit-chat and play card games like rummy with other old folks.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck and Singapore enforced the two-month-long circuit breaker, senior activity centres were closed and life became boring, particularly so for Mr Yong as he is not tech-savvy.
The 80-year-old uses his mobile phone for calls but does not know how to use a computer, surf the Web or send e-mails.
Mr Yong, who lives in a one-room rental flat with his wife, recalled in Mandarin: "It felt suffocating as we stayed at home all day, watching TV or staring at the walls."
But now that senior activity centres have reopened, a new life is opening up for Mr Yong, as they are teaching seniors how to go online and have some fun.
Recently, staff from Care Corner Singapore lent Mr Yong a SIM card with a data plan, installed the Skype app on his phone and taught him how to log on to activities through it.
On July 24, he went to the Woodlands senior activity centre to join a virtual tour of Gardens by the Bay with nine other seniors. At the centre, he could either use his phone to take part in the virtual tour or watch it projected onto a screen through a live stream. He chose the latter option.
A group of seniors from another Care Corner senior activity centre also joined the virtual tour, and a few others did so from their homes through Skype.
Conducted through a live stream by a horticulturist, the virtual tour was the first by Gardens by the Bay.
OCBC Bank employees who volunteer at Care Corner Singapore were also at the senior activity centre to interact with the seniors.
Mr Yong described the virtual activities as interesting, though they felt foreign to him.
Singapore has 78 senior activity centres, according to the Yearbook of Statistics 2019. These centres usually hold activities such as mass exercises and karaoke sessions for seniors to socialise with one another.
Social workers say those who attend the events are poor, often live alone and have little or no support from their families. But at the centres, they can interact with other seniors while staff keep an eye on them.
But as large group outings or gatherings are not possible now to keep the coronavirus at bay, the centres have turned to virtual outings and online activities to engage seniors.
These centres are teaching seniors how to use communication tools such as WhatsApp and Zoom and to go online for various activities.
Ms Sandy Goh, manager at Touch Senior Activity Centre, said: "The pandemic has disrupted the way we do things. We have to rethink the way we deliver our services so that seniors will continue to get the help they need."
SAFE, YET SOCIAL
The push to take some of their activities online comes amid the current safe management measures.
For example, activities are modified so that seniors can do them individually, rather than in groups. The seniors now do solo activities such as simple exercises and arts and crafts.
Also, the number of seniors at the centres at any one time is limited as they have to be at a safe distance of at least 1m apart, said a spokesman for the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC).
As a result, the number of seniors who go to these centres has fallen.
For example, fewer than 3,000 seniors went to Lions Befrienders' nine senior activity centres when they resumed operations in June, down from about 8,300 in January.
The fall is due to various reasons, including some seniors feeling it is unsafe to go out, and others finding the restrictions too much of a hassle.
Another problem surfaced during the circuit breaker - a small group of seniors did not own a phone and were not contactable.
Social workers said these seniors either could not afford a phone or were reluctant to learn to use one, or they did not see the need for one as they have no one to talk to.
Temasek Foundation is collaborating with its partners, including the AIC and Care Line, to sponsor new mobile phones for the vulnerable or socially isolated seniors. Care Line is run by Changi General Hospital and provides a tele-befriending service, which links seniors to health and social support in the community.
The AIC spokesman said: "It is important for community partners to have communication channels to vulnerable seniors, especially in the absence of regular physical interaction. Access to phones will facilitate the delivery of services and assistance to them, as well as provide an avenue for them to seek help."
For a start, the plan is to give away at least 500 Android phones beginning last month and Temasek Foundation's community partners will identify the beneficiaries, distribute the phones and teach seniors how to use them.
Madam Lim Ah Kheoh, 85, is thankful for the phone since it is free. She says she will use it to make calls if she has to.
The widow, who has no children and lives alone in a one-room rental flat, did not see the need to own a phone previously as "I don't like to socialise and anyway, no one is looking for me", she said in Hokkien.
If she needs help or needs to use a phone, she would turn to her neighbour. Volunteers and staff from Lions Befrienders also check in on her regularly at her flat.
MENTAL WELL-BEING ISSUES
Regardless of the means to reach out to seniors, be it online or offline activities, the need to keep them engaged for their physical and mental well-being cannot be over-emphasised, said social workers.
Mr Anthony Tay, chairman of Lions Befrienders, said his staff noticed a gradual decline in the seniors' emotional and mental well-being when its centres were closed.
They were also alerted to four suicide attempts during the circuit breaker. This was up from the average of one attempted suicide every three to six months before the pandemic, Mr Tay said.
Care Corner was alerted to two deaths during the circuit breaker, including a senior who was found dead at the foot of the block where he lived. He had a history of mental health issues.
Another senior was found dead at home, but Care Corner was not privy to the cause of his death.
Care Corner manager (social care) Sharon Tang said: "Many of the seniors we serve are alone - physically and emotionally. They either do not have any living kin, have acrimonious familial relationships or generally do not have a good support network from their family.
"If they do not intentionally step out of their homes and have social interaction with the community, they are at risk of depression and spiralling mental health issues."
The senior activity centres that The Straits Times interviewed have started taking some of their activities online.
For example, Care Corner is talking to sponsors to fund tablets and data plans for seniors who cannot afford them so that they can join in the virtual activities.
It is also planning to train 120 seniors as digital ambassadors to rope their friends in to join the Care Corner virtual community.
Lions Befrienders has started a virtual befriending programme where its corporate partners, including DBS Bank, and students will connect with seniors through tools such as Zoom.
Among other plans, the charity is working with the Infocomm Media Development Authority to teach seniors digital skills - such as using WhatsApp and making e-payments - through the Senior Go Digital programme.
Touch Community Services has taken some of its programmes online, such as its Happy programme, Community Nurse Post and stretch-band exercises.
In Community Nurse Post, nurses monitor seniors' health through Zoom, while the Happy programme consists of physical and brain-stimulating activities that are now also conducted through Zoom.
Ms Goh said these online programmes are well received, adding that seniors will join in when they see that their friends are benefiting from doing so.
Besides the senior activity centres, companies and volunteers are also stepping in to help.
For example, a group of artists from Artify Studio volunteered to teach 20 seniors from Touch Senior Activity Centre how to paint, through WhatsApp videoconferencing.
As OCBC's head of group brand and communications Koh Ching Ching put it: "Volunteering should continue, Covid-19 or no."
She added: "Many vulnerable seniors were already dealing with isolation and loneliness before Covid-19. We don't want Covid-19 to force the disengagement."
Hence, the bank's staff started to work with charities to conduct livestream sessions to interact with seniors.
The virtual activities include birthday celebrations, where a cake is delivered to the senior's house and volunteers from OCBC interact with the senior through Skype to celebrate the occasion.
The senior activity centres said that while some seniors are still resistant to learning new communication tools or to join in virtual activities, the tide is slowly turning as the pandemic has forced everyone to adapt their habits to cope with enforced isolation.
And that in the days ahead, online activities will be part of the new norm, the centres said.
A spokesman for Fei Yue Community Services said: "The old normal may or may not return any time soon. Many of the seniors will need to adjust themselves to be more digitally plugged in so that they do not become socially isolated further."
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