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S$3b national plan to help Singapore's seniors age well

To cover a five-year period, the plan has programmes ranging from enrichment classes to making the transport network elder-friendly

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An elderly couple checks out a scale model of North Park Residences, a Yishun condo development. Academics and industry stakeholders suggest that the government's active ageing plan also consider incorporating assisted-living apartments into housing estates.

Singapore

A S$3 billion plan is being rolled out so Singapore's seniors can age actively. The initiatives range from running courses to hone their job skills or for enrichment, to efforts to enhance transport and infrastructure to transform Singapore into a more age-friendly, cohesive nation.

With 60 programmes covering 12 areas, the programme comes after a year of consultation with more than 4,000 Singaporeans and grassroots leaders by the Ministerial Committee on Ageing and its partners.

Key initiatives include a National Silver Academy, which will run courses aimed at enhancing skills for employment and developing new areas of interest. These will be held at community organisations facilities such as polytechnics and ITE campuses. With funding support from the government, the academy plans to provide more than 30,000 learning places for seniors by 2030.

Meanwhile, with the re-employment age being raised to 67 (from 65) by 2017, a National Seniors' Health programme will introduce healthy lifestyle campaigns and activities in the community and at work so seniors stay fit and healthy.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said: "The important thing is to create more opportunities for our seniors to continue to work. We're now living a lot longer, and our seniors are a lot more functional and healthy. Many of them, when we engaged them, wanted to have the opportunity to be able to work longer so as to stay active and save up more for their eventual retirement."

More details on the plan, first broached by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech, will be released next year, when the initiatives start to be implemented. In the area of transport, the MRT and buses, along with pedestrian and road infrastructure, will be made more senior-friendly, such as by installing lifts in overhead bridges often used by seniors.

Meanwhile, 10 of HDB's build-to-order (BTO) projects over the next decade will have child-care and elder-care centres next to each other, so that young and old can mingle.

"Active ageing" hubs will be built in at least 10 future HDB developments; these will offer activities for active seniors as well as day care, day rehabilitation and assisted-living services for seniors who need them.

Another coming move is to put a PAssion Silver Card in the hands of every Singaporean aged 60 and up, entitling them to discounts and privileges from both the public and private sector.

Mr Gan expressed hope that this "action plan for successful ageing" will mean a more conducive environment for the country's seniors.

The initial S$3 billion tranche is for a five-year period.

Academics and industry stakeholders The Business Times spoke to welcomed the plan and described it as timely, in light of Singapore's rapidly ageing population; they also said it was a holistic plan that will benefit large segments of the elderly.

Professor Cyril Leung and Assoc Prof Miao Chun Yan of the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) said in response to queries from BT: "The action plan is a very good start. It will, of course, need to be adapted as the needs of the ageing population evolve.

"Cost-effective, age-friendly technologies will be an important element of the support structure for the elderly, be it in assisting the elderly to age healthily at home or to continue contributing to the nation's productivity."

Dr Ng Wai Chong, medical director of the Tsao Foundation's Hua Mei Centre for Successful Ageing, suggested that the plan take gender into account, because men and women age differently.

For instance, courses offered at the National Silver Academy should cater to the interests of both genders. Where health care is concerned, women live longer and thus suffer disabilities for a longer period than men.

"We cannot rely on family care-givers forever, particularly for the women. By the time they're sick, there might not be caregivers for them," he said.

He added that income adequacy is also a bigger issue for women if they do not have sufficient funds to tap in their old age.

He also suggested that consideration be given to introducing assisted-living apartments - and these, for the disabled as well - tucked into the BTO development of these seniors' existing neighbourhood, so that they are not displaced to new environments.

Assoc Prof Kalyani Mehta, who heads the gerontology programme at SIM University, identified the training and education of elder-care staff as an area to build on down the road.

She said: "A Certificate in Gerontology should be made a necessary criteria for all staff working with seniors. The National Silver Academy would be well placed to run such a basic training course."

She also suggested introducing more comprehensive services and schemes for caregivers, especially for those that teach them how to deal with stress. This is a crucial area, because the welfare of seniors is linked to that of their caregivers.