The elderly help the elderly in "Seniors' Friend" programme

Mr Song Moh Yong, 65, helping Madam Jaya Lidya Samuel (in wheelchair), 65. She suffers from polio and arthritis and is looking for a volunteer to help her attend hospital visits. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

SINGAPORE - Mr Song Moh Yong, 65, visits the hospital three to four times a month - but not for himself.

The retiree shows up to help someone who is older than him - someone who is in his 70s and suffering from a litany of illness, including diabetes, high blood pressure and problems with his gastrointestinal system.

Mr Song is one of five senior citizens who have signed up for the Seniors' Friend programme, an initiative by the North East Community Development Council (CDC) that matches the elderly with their peers who need help attending medical appointments.

Ms Azlin Mohamed, corporate manager at North East CDC, said it started the programme in November after finding out that some of the elderly had been missing appointments because of the language barrier and a lack of caregiver support.

The initiative is part of the Community Employment Programme Active Agers (CEP AA), another programme by North East CDC that helps elderly residents find part-time and temporary jobs.

Those above 62 can sign up to help, and they are paid $5 an hour.

Asked why he signed up, Mr Song told The Straits Times: "I am retired and have the time now. Also, my physical state and health is better than theirs, so I want to help them." He also felt that elderly helpers were better than younger ones at helping other elderly people, as they had more time, patience and spoke the same language - both literally and figuratively.

But the programme has had a bumpy start. Five people have been trained to help and 15 have applied to receive help, but Mr Song is the only one who has been matched with a beneficiary.

Matches are not easy to make. Ms Mohamed said location and language had to be considered, as well as physical fitness and sometimes gender. And many people have not heard of the programme, which is limited to areas under North East CDC.

Madam Jaya Lidya d/o Samuel, 65, is still looking for help. She has polio, arthritis and colon cancer. She uses a wheelchair and needs help getting to her appointments, which are once every three months.

Madam Jaya, who lives with her sister in a one-room flat, now relies on volunteers from Sunlove Home Help Service. But the volunteers are not always available at the right time, so she signed up for Seniors' Friend two weeks ago to find someone who would be available more consistently. And while Sunlove's volunteers take her to and from appointments, the helpers under Seniors' Friend are trained in using mobility aids and navigating hospitals. They can also handle simple translation.

Apart from taking her to the hospital, Madam Jaya said she would also like someone to keep her company by taking her to shopping centres and meals, instead of her "always staying home".

She may not be disappointed. Seniors' Friend may focus on medical needs, but Mr Song and the man he is helping have become friends.

Mr Song said in Mandarin: "He has problems moving and can't walk too far, so I encourage him to walk further before he sits back down in his wheelchair.

"He likes to talk a lot because he lives alone and there's no one to talk with him, so I talk with him. He speaks English, Malay and Chinese dialects.

"When I leave he tells me to stay a while longer to talk with him."

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