Study highlights need to help 'socially isolated' elderly folk

An elderly man standing outside the common corridor of a HDB flat. -- BT FILE PHOTO: YEN MENG JIIN 
An elderly man standing outside the common corridor of a HDB flat. -- BT FILE PHOTO: YEN MENG JIIN 

A group of elderly folk in Singapore needs help and their woes are "a gap that can be plugged", according to a study.

Living alone in one-room flats and feeling isolated, they hardly seem to care for their health. They tend not to go for health screenings - an indifference that causes their overall health to suffer.

These key findings of a study on successful ageing by researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) highlight the need for the community to step in and help them, said the three dons who have been involved in the study since 2011.

The results were presented at a symposium on successful ageing at NUS yesterday.

The researchers called for more volunteerism to help pull these old folk out of isolation.

"When you have a strong pool of volunteers to step up and fill the gap, then the whole community benefits," said sociologist Paulin Straughan, a co-author of the study.

In all, researchers polled 1,540 Singaporeans in their 50s and 60s for their attitudes towards ageing. They are working with researchers who had carried out similar surveys in Seoul and Shanghai, and plan to compare the results to better understand ageing in the region.

In Singapore, they found that more than 80 per cent have been screened for health problems such as diabetes or high cholesterol.

Those who have not were found to be "socially isolated"; for instance, people who are unmarried or widowed. Or, they live alone in a one-room flat.

Professor Straughan said part of the problem may lie with the ideal of a three-generation family living under one roof. Older folk who may not have such support could see it as a failing on their part and "would rather live in misery than admit that they are left alone (by their families)".

This is the gap the community needs to plug, she added.

Organisations such as RSVP Singapore and the Council for Third Age are doing so with their befrienders' programmes.

But they can do more, she added. She suggested having a regular doctor at polyclinics to serve the elderly. This would help build a relationship so they are less likely to dismiss the doctor's advice "because they don't understand it".

"Part of feeling good about ageing is feeling a sense of relevance and importance," she said. "Community ties are very important. We need to look at how to involve the elderly in the daily concerns of their communities."

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