Ageing gracefully in Singapore by focusing on mental health
Commentary | Lim Yun Hui, Associate Commentary Editor
In the National Day Rally 2019, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced 3 main policy changes that will impact the workforce - increases to retirement, re-employment age and CPF contribution rates. Driving these adjustments are low birth rate, increased life expectancy and a fast-approaching ageing population and workforce.
By 2030, around 28% of Singapore’s total population will be at least 65 years old. By 2050, that percentage will rise to around half of the whole population. Life expectancy is expected to rise to 85.6 and 89.3 years old for male and female Singaporeans by 2050. If birth rates remain stable or decline even further the dependency ratio will drop to 1:1, meaning a sandwiched generation where one adult will be supporting one elderly or child at the same time.
These statistics show that the government faces a demographic shift with far-reaching implications and yet, have to prepare and put in place medium to long-term measures to alleviate any potential detrimental effects of this change. They have introduced economic-focused policies that ensure adequate retirement funds, access to affordable healthcare and a productive workforce despite having a higher proportion of elderly workers.
However, there has been a dearth of public policies and campaigns that deal with the psychological and mental effects of living longer. After all, an active, healthy and positive mind can help everyone deal with the depressing and often demoralising effects of ageing. Ageing and death are characteristics of the human experience, and it is important to illuminate the importance of ageing gracefully in Singapore.
Ageing in Singapore
Table made by author to show 3 mutually reinforcing problems faced by elderly
The elderly face three mutually reinforcing problems specific to their age group that I have outlined in the above figure. While the government has implemented measures that allow elderly to age securely such as the changes announced in the NDP rally and investments in affordable healthcare, I believe that more needs to be done on the part of families, communities and non-governmental organisations to improve the ‘mental health’ of the elderly. Why then, is boosting mental health important?
In Japan, the term ‘Kodokushi’ refers to elderly dying alone. This worrying trend is also seen in Singapore, with increasing cases of elderly dying alone and their bodies found only after they had passed away for a few days. This fear is especially prevalent amongst seniors who live alone and the government estimates that by 2030, there will be 83,000 seniors living alone. Another troubling trend is the number of elderly suicides, which hit a record high of 129 in 2017.
Where the government can provide the economic resources to ameliorate the financial and physical challenges of an ageing society, I strongly believe that society should also step up to ameliorate these social challenges of an ageing society. I suggest 3 areas the Singaporean society should look at to boost seniors’ mental health, thus allowing them to age gracefully.
Boosting Mental Health
The role of religion should not be overlooked in eldercare because they help provide spiritual peace of mind in a person’s final years. Fear of death is a basic human emotion and has been present in all societies for centuries and each religion helps to assuage these concerns by presenting their own notions of the ‘afterlife’ and ‘heaven’.
If religious organisations reach out to the elderly, it will be beneficial for the elderly in ensuring they have regular face-to-face interaction and meetups with other members of society. At the same time, they provide relief by helping the elderly deal with the fundamental fear of death.
2) Social networks
What about atheists or seniors who don’t find comfort in the belief of a higher being? We can then look at social bonds within the family, friends and immediate neighbours of elderly residents that can be strengthened to ensure that they remain ‘connected’ to and active members of society. Where filial piety is eroding due to double-income households and imports of foreign domestic workers to care for elderly, neighbourhood organisations (Residents’ Committee, Town Council) can step up efforts to engage the elderly with regular void deck meetups and block events.
Neighbourhood befriending programmes such as the Community Outreach Programme for the Elderly (COPE) by the South East Community Development Council has attracted over 900 volunteers to serve 4600 elderly residents. What is even more interesting is that more than 850 elderly are actively involved in self-initiated interest groups ranging from chess to taichi. Such elderly activism and active ageing help to change people’s perceptions of seniors from ‘recipients’ of help to ‘givers’ that contribute back to the community.
3) Creative facilities
Besides looking at human-to-human bonds, some nursing homes in Singapore have made use of therapy dogs to bring happiness to the elderly. Often, the feeling of being ‘abandoned’, ‘excluded’ or ‘left behind’ by their closest kins in nursing or retirement homes is extremely upsetting and detrimental on their mental health. It could make them even more reclusive and harder for caretakers to better their living conditions. By encouraging partnerships between disadvantaged populations of society, they have the potential to provide creative solutions that enhance the variety and effectiveness of eldercare in Singapore.
I always envisioned a mutually beneficial collaboration between retirement homes in Singapore and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). A senior care facility requires programmes to engage its residents while an animal shelter often requires more volunteers to take care of its abandoned animals. This is a perfect combination that allows the elderly to feel valued in the process of taking care of the animals and for abandoned animals to feel care, love, attention and affection. Thus, I believe that the potential and support for such partnerships need to be further explored and promoted in Singapore.
In managing the socioeconomic implications and challenges of an ageing population, a holistic approach that takes into account elderly’s mental health is not only more effective but contributes to the building of a ‘gracious society’. When civil society steps up to make better the psychological and mental effects of ageing, not only does it help the aged age gracefully, it creates a Singapore where Singaporeans genuinely care for one another.
Yun Hui is a Year 4 Political Science major who is currently an Associate Commentary Editor for The Convergence. Constantly reading up on domestic sociopolitical issues and regional affairs, she finds particular interest in the diverse and nuanced point of views presented by each writer. She hopes that her contributions will urge more people to be more well-read and informed about local and international developments that raise the level of political consciousness in Singapore.