Seniors with dementia volunteer weekly at pre-school, temple under pilot programme

The pilot programme gets seniors to read to pre-schoolers and tend to a vegetable farm with primary school pupils. PHOTOS: AWWA, LIEN FOUNDATION

SINGAPORE - Seniors at a dementia daycare centre in Ang Mo Kio are volunteering weekly at a pre-school, primary school and temple as part of efforts to keep them active and slow down the progress of their illness.

The pilot programme, initiated by social service agency Awwa and philanthropic organisation Lien Foundation, gets the seniors to read to pre-schoolers and tend to a vegetable farm with primary school pupils. 

The seniors volunteer at Elias Park Primary School in Pasir Ris, Jamiyah Childcare Centre in Ang Mo Kio and the Sri Darma Muneeswaran Temple in Serangoon North.

Dementia daycare centres usually engage seniors in rehabilitative activities that can be administered safely and efficiently, such as colouring or doing jigsaw puzzles.

But Mr Sairam Azad, director of health and senior care at Awwa, said: “Many seniors don’t find traditional daycare centres attractive, so the advantages of that model – such as cost, efficiency and safety – may not mean much ultimately.

“To boost the self-esteem of the seniors, the activities conducted should be meaningful, functional and aligned to their personal preferences and provide opportunities to use their residual skills.”

Ms Chua Shi Jia, a senior occupational therapist at Awwa, said: “Therapeutic activities don’t have to be done only within the dementia daycare centre. In fact, they shouldn’t.

“You will be surprised how many seemingly ordinary activities have a therapeutic benefit for seniors.”

She said the simple activity of arranging temple offerings on a plate requires the seniors to memorise the sequence of steps, and practise motor skills to position items like betel leaves and bananas at the correct angles.

It also serves as reminiscence therapy for some seniors who recall chewing betel leaves as children.

“Most importantly, it gives the seniors purpose. They know they are doing something greater than themselves,” said Ms Chua. “When they are motivated, it’s easier to keep them healthy.”

Seniors from Awwa dementia daycare centre in Ang Mo Kio volunteering at the Sri Darma Muneeswaran Temple. PHOTO: AWWA, LIEN FOUNDATION

The seniors are accompanied by Awwa staff when they are volunteering.

The social service agency also trains staff and students at host organisations to interact with people with dementia.

The pilot programme follows the healthcare model of social prescription, where in addition to being prescribed medicine, seniors are told to participate in community activities to improve their mental and physical well-being.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung had encouraged social prescription, including better diet and regular exercise, to complement drug prescriptions by family doctors.

He was speaking in October at the Singapore Health and Biomedical Congress at the Singapore Expo on reinventing healthcare.

In his speech, Mr Ong cited the Healthier SG initiative, which focuses on preventive care to reduce the toll of the ageing population on the healthcare system.

Awwa hopes to partner 30 host organisations by March 2024, up from the current three.

Mr Azad said: “The key lies in the matchmaking – finding activities that are non-mission critical which can be completed with the residual abilities and time of our seniors.”

Ms Chua said Awwa is considering getting the seniors to participate in artistic and musical activities.

About 10 seniors with mild to moderate dementia have been volunteering weekly since July.

The agency hopes to engage 30 seniors with all stages of dementia in the programme in 2023, she said.

An 81-year-old retired accounts clerk who works part-time at a coffee shop and attends the dementia daycare centre, and who wants to be known only as Mr Koh, said: “I enjoy working at the Hindu temple.

“I am not Hindu but it doesn’t matter, because this was how we grew up in Singapore last time.”

The pilot volunteer programme is part of a $3.56 million project by Awwa, which includes extended operating hours, new respite services and a revamp of facilities.

A senior from Awwa’s dementia daycare centre in Ang Mo Kio volunteering at Jamiyah Childcare Centre. PHOTO: AWWA, LIEN FOUNDATION

Operating hours of the Awwa dementia daycare centre, located at Block 123 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 6, have been extended by three hours.

Since July, it has been operating from 7am to 10pm on weekdays.

A weekend respite service for caregivers of seniors with dementia is also available, and a night respite service for these caregivers is pending approval from the regulatory authorities.

Currently, the weekend respite service is supporting about 26 seniors.

Respite care is a stay-in service suitable for seniors who are dependent on caregivers for daily care needs.

As part of the project, the dementia daycare centre will be redesigned and renovated, and an active ageing centre will be set up in the area next year.

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