COVID-19 SPECIAL

Staff from senior activity centres allowed to visit vulnerable seniors

Charities say most seniors are coping well, but some have major problems

Social workers interviewed note the importance of making physical visits to seniors who are more vulnerable, as such visits allow them to observe the seniors' health and well-being. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG
Social workers interviewed note the importance of making physical visits to seniors who are more vulnerable, as such visits allow them to observe the seniors' health and well-being. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

Staff from senior activity centres have been allowed to visit those who are vulnerable and need urgent help while the centres, which run activities for the elderly, are closed during the circuit breaker period.

The Agency for Integrated Care (AIC) told The Straits Times that physical visits to seniors are allowed only for those who need prompt care assistance, or do not have a phone.

Its spokesman added: "These visits are made only if necessary, and precautionary measures are put in place, such as safe distancing."

While the charities that run these centres said when interviewed that the majority of the seniors they serve are coping well with physical isolation during the circuit breaker which began on April 7, a small number had major problems.

For example, in an extreme case, an 86-year-old woman, who is single and living alone, attempted suicide by overdosing on pills. She was saved in time by a friend who regularly checked on her, said Lions Befrienders chairman Anthony Tay.

The senior was depressed by her declining health, but the enforced isolation made it worse. The charity has since referred her to a nursing home.

In another case, an 82-year-old man had meals delivered to him through the Meals-On-Wheels service. But staff noticed that he did not pick up the food outside his door, and they called the Singapore Civil Defence Force as the door was locked, said Dr Jamie Phang, cluster director, community eldercare services, Methodist Welfare Services (MWS).

The man had fallen and was found lying on the floor of his flat. After he was discharged from hospital, the MWS sent its home-care services to help him as he is living alone.

Social workers interviewed noted the importance of physical visits for these vulnerable seniors.

Mr Kavin Seow, senior director, elderly group, Touch Community Services, said physical visits allow staff to observe the health and well-being of seniors, such as if they have lost a significant amount of weight, are becoming increasingly listless or depressed, or are showing signs of cognitive or physical decline.

There are also seniors with hearing problems that make it hard for them to talk on the phone.

AFFIRMATION OF LOVE

Visiting high-risk seniors is an affirmation of our love and concern for them. We also pay attention to the seniors' non-verbal behaviour to gauge their emotional and mental state.

MR KAVIN SEOW, from Touch Community Services.

SENIORS STEPPING FORWARD TOO

In these times, we have also seen seniors step forward to care for one another as neighbours. They buy meals and groceries for each other and some have offered to take on the weekly calls to other seniors.

DR JAMIE PHANG, from Methodist Welfare Services.

He said: "Visiting high-risk seniors is an affirmation of our love and concern for them. We also pay attention to the seniors' non-verbal behaviour to gauge their emotional and mental state.

"It may also be easier for seniors to surface any sensitive issues when they meet us in person."

  • GETTING HELP 

  • If you or seniors you know need help, you can call the following helplines:

    • Seniors Helpline: 1800-555-5555

    • Touch Care Line: 6804-6555

    • Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444

Mr Tay said Lions Befrienders staff have visited more than 170 seniors since they were allowed to do so from end-April.

These seniors were either at risk of harming themselves or being hospitalised due to various medical reasons. Others were uncontactable through other means or suffering from dementia or other mental health conditions.

They were either living alone or with an ageing spouse with multiple medical conditions.

During the circuit breaker period, essential services such as home-care services and meal deliveries are continuing to ensure that the elderly and their caregivers receive the necessary support at home.

Meanwhile, the Alert Alarm System, which allows seniors to pull an emergency cord installed in their flats to call for assistance, continues to be manned.

The AIC's outreach arm, Silver Generation Office, also proactively calls seniors with weak family support to check on them.

On Tuesday, it was announced that from June 2, senior activity centres will gradually resume some of their activities to cater to the well-being of the elderly who have little or no social support.

To engage and check on the seniors they serve during the circuit breaker, charities say they have adopted various measures such as calling them regularly.

For example, the MWS records its staff doing exercises and sends these video clips to the seniors. It also conducts group calls through WhatsApp and Zoom to encourage them to share more about their day.

Dr Phang said: "In these times, we have also seen seniors step forward to care for one another as neighbours. They buy meals and groceries for each other and some have offered to take on the weekly calls to other seniors."

Temasek Foundation is collaborating with the AIC, CareLine and its community care partners to sponsor mobile phones to be given to vulnerable or socially isolated seniors with little or no social support and who do not have access to a phone.

For a start, at least 500 phones will be given away from July.

The AIC spokesman said: "With the sponsored phone, seniors will have peace of mind knowing that care is just a call away via CareLine."

CareLine, a 24/7 telecare service by Changi General Hospital, links seniors to health and social support in the community, among other things.

What is unique about the sponsored phones is that they will be specially configured to serve the needs of vulnerable elderly users.

The AIC will work with CareLine and its partners to teach seniors how to use these phones.

Mr Tay said that the phones are also configured so that they cannot be resold, as staff have observed in previous cases that some seniors would sell their free phones to clear their debts, buy alcohol or cigarettes, or to gamble. Some others would sell the phones as they did not know how to use them.

He added: "Some could have traded their phones because of legitimate needs or emergencies."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 21, 2020, with the headline 'Staff from senior activity centres allowed to visit vulnerable seniors'. Subscribe