Recognising and appreciating senior volunteerism

Senior volunteers can be active givers, supporting the community; and they are a new resource that is yet untapped.

THERE is a silver lining amid the issue of a greying population in Singapore. RSVP Singapore, a non-profit organisation that supports senior volunteerism, recognises that this group of people has a wealth of experience and are an untapped resource that can be used to help care for the other seniors, among others.

Having been around since 1998, it partnered Standard Chartered Bank in 2019 for a three-year collaboration to develop the capabilities of seniors and to empower them as active volunteers serving the needs of the community. Patrick Lee, CEO of Standard Chartered Bank, Singapore, said: "At Standard Chartered, we believe that we can make a positive social and economic impact in our community. In Singapore, the issue of an ageing population is very real and we believe it has far-reaching social and economic impact to the society. We became acquainted with RSVP Singapore in 2018 and were excited by what we could achieve together.

"In supporting the seniors, we usually think about giving or helping them with something. Our partnership with RSVP aims to turn the mindset around - instead of being traditional recipients of help or service, senior volunteers can be givers who can support the community. This is very practical and feasible for many reasons, which include senior volunteers being a new resource that is yet untapped. Therefore, we inked the three-year partnership with RSVP Singapore in 2019 to promote the development of senior volunteerism in Singapore."

Mr Lee added that society has established myths and negative stereotypes about ageing which are often reinforced by our individual experiences and widely publicised in the mass media.

"The reality is - more seniors are staying healthier and seniors are also not a homogeneous group that is categorised by their age - they are diverse personalities who come from different culture, education, beliefs and socio-economic backgrounds and should be treated as individuals with specific needs and wants," Mr Lee said.

RSVP Singapore chairman Koh Juay Meng said: "As the National Centre of Excellence for Senior Volunteerism, we are already coordinating efforts and resources to grow senior volunteerism, particularly among the baby boomers. The three-year partnership with Standard Chartered Bank will further boost our efforts, as we develop the capabilities of our seniors and enable them to meet the needs of the community."

Here are 3 examples of senior volunteers and why it is still good to give in one's golden years.

  • This article is part of a series on doing good for our community, supported by Standard Chartered Bank

MARTHA EE, a volunteer at RSVP Singapore, often looks forward to her weekly phone call with client Mdm Lim, who is more than 80 years old, to get first dibs about the latest happenings in her friend's life.

Ms Ee is herself a housewife. At 67 years old, she is an active volunteer and dispels the myth that volunteerism is only for the young.

Ms Ee said of her relationship with Mdm Lim: "Before Covid-19, I would visit her weekly (instead of calling), and even took her out to a salon in Yishun."

"Physical contact is always better, but better to be safe during this period of time, especially at our age", she added with a laugh.

Both ladies got to know each other through RSVP Singapore's befriender programme - My Buddy - in 2017.

The collaboration between RSVP Singapore and Khoo Teck Puat Hospital started in 2013. The beneficiaries are clients who have recovered from medical conditions but require some form of social support at home.

Ms Ee said: "I came across RSVP at a roadshow in Suntec in 2017. I had experience in home visits, so I was interested to volunteer for the MyBuddy programme."

The idea of an elderly volunteering to help someone in the same age range may raise some brows, but Ms Ee, even while having some health issues, remains unfazed and committed to helping others for as long as she can.

The housewife said: "We need more volunteers to come forward as there are many neglected elderly and it is good to have more (volunteers) so we can pay more attention to them."

The mother of three admitted that there were challenges initially when she embarked on her volunteering journey, such as getting used to the personalities of each beneficiary, who can be shy at first blush.

Even her husband could not fathom why Ms Ee couldn't stay at home and watch television programmes.

"He was worried that I might 'catch' a disease from visiting the clients. I explained to him that these clients are cured. They just needed someone to talk to.

"It is still a work in progress to get my spouse to accept that I enjoy doing this, but he is more open now," she added.

Ms Ee said that age and money should not be an issue when it comes to volunteering, as it is all about the passion to reach out to others who are in need.

She said: "As you get closer to the beneficiaries, they also show concern for you in their own way, and you gain much more than what you give."

When asked about a case that left an impression on her, Ms Ee said she used to visit two clients, but one passed away in September 2019.

"The one who passed away - I had a close relationship with her. I called her 'Ah Ma'. When I visited her, I would bring her out with her helper. Sometimes, I would bring her to eat durian. I would then take photos and videos of her during our outings and send it to her son to update him. Although she has passed on, I still maintain a close relationship with her helper and her son. I would meet the helper for lunch occasionally, just to check how she was doing."

Ms Ee admitted that one of the challenges was also learning to not be too emotionally affected when a beneficiary dies.

"They are all elderly people, life and death is part and parcel of this journey. But getting too emotionally involved can pull us into a depression. So it is a learning journey for me. I also learnt to make preparations for myself when the time that I need help comes."

Ultimately, Ms Ee said, it is important to have rapport with the beneficiaries as "rapport creates that commitment to continue volunteering".

AFTER retiring in 2015, Evelyn Tan dedicated most of her time looking after her sister who had dementia.

However, after her sister enlisted professional help, Ms Tan realised she had more spare time on her hands and started looking for activities to keep herself occupied.

Ms Tan said she first heard about the Council for Third Age (C3A) exhibition in 2016 from an advertisement on the news.

"After some persuasion from a friend and, out of sheer curiosity, I decided to go for the exhibition at Suntec City after my church service on Sunday. By chance, I learned about the volunteering opportunities that were offered by RSVP Singapore at the booth. For some reason, RSVP's booth stood out to me as the term 'rsvp' is usually used in invitation letters and I felt that I was being invited to something new," said Ms Tan.

The 67-year-old added that she was interested in the Senior Guiding programme and had wanted to volunteer as a regular, but realised she could not commit such long hours initially.

"I was then introduced to the episodic volunteering programme when I joined in 2017. As I currently live alone, I do not cook and often go out to have my meals. After months of volunteering at Willing Hearts (WH), I have picked up a new skill of handling different types of ingredients.

"The volunteers at WH really know their stuff when it comes to the various vegetables and through them, I learnt the different ways to maximise the shelf-life of the vegetables. Volunteering there gave me a chance to step out of my comfort zone and experience something I would not have tried - cooking."

Ms Tan has since "graduated" from being an episodic volunteer to a regular one at the Indian Heritage Centre by being a guide.

"It is very interesting as they have 3-4 festivals yearly. I can engage with visitors and we guide them in activities like handicrafts. It is better than staying at home and watching TV," Ms Tan said with a laugh.

Ms Tan added that some counselling jobs she took up previously has helped her in this volunteering journey as "with that knowledge, I can better take care of the seniors and empathise with them".

When asked why age should not be a barrier to volunteering, Ms Tan said that volunteering should come from the heart.

"We seniors need to have a positive mindset, mix around with friends and stay active. I also try to hike at our Singapore Nature Reserve parks with other seniors too. I chose to expose myself to new things to regain my self-confidence, which in turn keeps me healthy."

In line with what she preaches, Ms Tan was a participant at the 5km event of Standard Chartered Marathon, which she completed with her fellow volunteers.

KUMAR UDAYA may have retired in 2017, but that has not stopped the 65-year-old from leading an active lifestyle.

He joined RSVP in April 2019, and said that this process is a journey of learning for not just the beneficiary but himself too.

Mr Kumar said: "I volunteer at the Institute of Mental Health's Mentally Disadvantaged Outreach Programme. We interact with patients who are almost ready to go home and be integrated back to society."

He admitted that there were challenges initially, working with this group of people, as "we were also strangers to them initially". However, after several interactions, Mr Kumar said some of them started to look forward to the visits every Friday.

"These beneficiaries help us to see a different viewpoint, and I have learnt to live in the moment, value life more and enjoy myself." There are stigmas associated with this group of people, but "upon getting to know them, I realised that they are no different from you or me. They just need more space and understanding. I also learned not to judge someone by their cover. It is easy to say, but not to do," he added.

Hence, Mr Kumar said that he initially approached them cautiously, as the first interaction is important. "However, once the relationship is established, the barrier is overcome. I believe it is important to volunteer, and for seniors to have an active lifestyle, which is why I took part in the Standard Chartered's Marathon's 5km walk."

Besides being a volunteer of RSVP Singapore, Mr Kumar teaches yoga to children at Potong Pasir, where he lives.

He has incorporated his skillset when taking part in exercises with beneficiaries at IMH.

"Most of them are aged and their limbs and fingers are not so flexible . . . we have other activities such as painting and karaoke, but I take charge of the exercise.

"Having been a mechanical engineer previously, the skills I learnt then has also come in handy whenever I need to do coordination work."

When asked about the changes he would like to see in the volunteering landscape, Mr Kumar expressed a desire for the younger generation to volunteer more.

"Nowadays, it is rare to see three generation living together under the same roof. Younger children do not have enough interactions with the elderly and there is a gap. The various age groups need to mingle more to understand the mindset of the elderly. And as for the elderly, as long as you are fit and healthy, you can volunteer."

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