Senior Volunteerism

Turning Silver Years into Gold

When we first joined the service, we found out that there are people out there who are even lonelier than us because they live alone.

Pre-COVID, 84-year-old Danny Goh and his 75-year-old wife Lois would pay fortnightly visits to a senior, Anne, who has been living alone since her mother passed away 3 years ago.

The couple would spend an hour each time chatting with the senior and teaching her to sing.

Their outreach efforts are part of the Community Befriending Service run by Methodist Welfare Services (MWS), where volunteer befrienders are connected with socially isolated seniors.

Both former teachers, Danny and Lois first started volunteering with MWS in 2014.

In the beginning, they conducted exercises for the elderly and befriended seniors whom they met at MWS Charis ACE – Geylang East, where they serve. Subsequently, the couple joined the Centre’s Community Befriending Service, visiting frail home-bound seniors.

“When we first joined the service, we found out that there are people out there who are even lonelier than us because they live alone. So we decided to visit them in their homes every fortnight and encourage them to join the Centre activities,” shared Lois.

Danny added, “Some seniors no longer know what happiness is. They experience loneliness and isolation because they have lost their mobility, or because their social circles became smaller over the years. When we meet these seniors, we see how their faces light up and fill with joy when we chat with them, sing and play our ukulele.”

The couple was paired with Anne in 2019. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck and home visits had to stop, they kept in touch with her over the phone and Zoom.

“She is in her 70s, and is recovering from cancer, osteoarthritis and depression. Anne enjoys singing and music. She joined us for vocal lessons even when they were moved online,” shared Lois.

“Over time, the pain in her legs disappeared and even her counsellor said her mental well-being has improved! These joyful activities have helped her in her recovery journey. We simply feel blessed to be able to bring companionship and comfort to seniors like Anne.”

Danny and Lois are part of a growing pool of seniors in Singapore who are stepping forward to give back to the community through various volunteering initiatives. A survey by the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) found that the rate of volunteerism among seniors aged 50 and above more than doubled from 13% in 2008 to 29% in 2016.

At MWS, there were 115 new senior volunteers in 2019, more than double that of the 50 in 2018. About 40% of the regular volunteers – or about 500 volunteers – are aged 55 and older.

Tapping the Potential of Silver Volunteerism

From befriending vulnerable and isolated seniors to tutoring disadvantaged children, seniors bring a wealth of talents and experiences to the volunteering table, and have proven to be a valuable resource for proactive community outreach.

Catalysing ground-up efforts of activating senior volunteers form part of MWS’ strategy to strengthen its volunteer ecosystem and increase community engagement to create a more sustainable support network.

By empowering senior volunteers in preventive care and community activation, MWS taps their gold mine of experience and skills to uplift vulnerable people in their neighbourhoods.

Senior volunteerism is gaining importance in our city-state amid a rapidly greying population. By 2030, one in four Singaporeans will be aged 65 or older, while the number of seniors living alone is projected to double from 41,000 in 2018 to a whopping 92,000.

Compared to previous generations, the current generation of seniors are better educated, with valuable skills acquired over their careers that will put them in good stead for giving back through volunteering. With access to more affordable and quality healthcare, many seniors in Singapore are also likely to stay healthy and can do more and remain active.

A senior volunteer teaching English to her peers at MWS Senior Activity Centre - GreenTops@Sims Place

Putting the Gold in Golden Years

Last year, the government rolled out a new baseline service at eldercare centres to serve all seniors nationwide while supporting aging in place and building an enabled community.

In line with the initiative, a host of Senior Activity Centres (SACs) have transitioned to Active Ageing Centres (AACs), with more to follow. The new eldercare model has a mandate to reach out to all seniors in their community and provide a suite of services.

This includes active ageing programmes that promote volunteerism as well as befriending of isolated seniors through home visits and phone calls. It also provides a network of care and support for seniors with needs, such as making timely referrals to dedicated partners like hospitals and day care centres.

In May 2021, MWS AAC – Kebun Baru piloted the new Eldercare Centre (EC) service model. Three other MWS SACs have since followed suit, namely, MWS Charis ACE – Geylang East, MWS Wesley SAC – Jalan Berseh and MWS SAC – Golden Lily @ Pasir Ris.

Community befrienders, sometimes accompanied by MWS staff, conduct home visits to support isolated seniors in their needs

One of the most common volunteer work undertaken by senior volunteers at MWS is to serve as befrienders who engage vulnerable older adults to provide support and keep social isolation at bay. These volunteers also encourage other seniors to participate in centre activities such as line dancing, origami workshops and cooking classes so as to increase social engagement, as well as promote active aging and a healthy lifestyle.

Changing the Narrative Around Aging

Studies have shown that negative self-perceptions of aging can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

By volunteering, older adults can also help dismantle ageist beliefs and promote a more age-inclusive society.

Ageism directed at older adults affects all age groups. In her research, Bevy Levy, professor of psychology at Yale University, found that people who hold negative stereotypes about older age groups when they were younger internalise them and think the same about themselves as they age. Studies have shown that negative self-perceptions of aging can become self-fulfilling prophecies that have a detrimental effect on physical and mental health, including life satisfaction and mood.

Likewise, a 2014 survey ‘Perception and Attitudes towards Ageing and Seniors’ found that external negative perceptions of seniors could result in their internalised low self-esteem. One way of promoting a positive aging mind-set is through senior volunteerism. In fact, the same study found that about 8 out of 10 senior respondents saw voluntary work as a means to find a sense of self-worth, stay socially connected and lead a meaningful life.

Despite that, only 43% of the respondents said they would consider volunteering in the next few years. Thus, the challenge remains: how can society move more seniors to contribute meaningfully to the community while living out their golden years?

Boosting Volunteerism Rates

According to the NVPC’s Individual Giving Study (IGS) 2018 – Silver Volunteerism (Silver V) Study, the lack of time and health are the top barriers to seniors volunteering.

Reasons given by senior former volunteers and senior non-volunteers for no longer/not volunteering.
Source: Individual Giving Study 2018 - Silver V Study, National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre

To lower the barrier, MWS SACs have tweaked their outreach programmes to appeal to a wider base of potential volunteers. In the case of befriending isolated seniors, MWS may pair 4 befrienders with one senior, spreading the volunteer workload of making fortnightly home visits and providing follow-up care.

Be a Befriender of Seniors

  • Work in groups of 2-4, per senior
  • Contact 2-3 seniors once a week
  • Alternate weekly contact by phone and in-person

Be a Buddy to Seniors

  • Work in groups of 2-4, per senior
  • Contact 2-3 seniors once a month, by phone
  • Visit senior once every 3 months

Strengths-mapping and relationship building are ways to encourage more seniors to volunteer, shares Sng Bee Li, Head, MWS Senior Activity Centres. “We identify the talents and abilities of our senior members and rope them in to volunteer. Also, by involving seniors in our programmes, they feel a sense of belonging to the Centre and become more inclined to pay it forward.”

One such member-turned-volunteer is 63-year-old stroke survivor Mr Ang Thiam Kiat. After suffering a stroke in 2016, the former production soundman signed up for a rehabilitation exercise programme at MWS SAC – Teck Ghee Vista. Over the years, he has made steady progress in his stroke recovery, while getting emotional support from friends at the Centre.

In 2019, an MWS staff learnt that Mr Ang loves to colour and encouraged him to colour at the SAC. The staff noticed his artistic flair and asked if he would like to share his passion with his peers. From there, Mr Ang started leading a colouring interest group and teaching drawing to senior members. It started with a group of 5 and has since grown to about 20.

MWS SACs have also been empowering seniors to lead various volunteering initiatives to engage their peers, including the creation of a community garden. That ground-up project at MWS SAC – Fernvale Rivergrove saw many male seniors – who generally are less likely than women to volunteer – putting their carpentry and construction skills to good use.

Time-banking: A Win-win Situation

Seniors possess human and social capital that can be harnessed for the good of society. To encourage volunteerism among people including seniors, some countries have introduced time banking, where people can bank their volunteering hours and redeem them for rewards.

In Japan, seniors can swap points racked up in volunteering for services from other volunteers. The time-banking scheme is aimed at promoting active ageing and ageing in place in the world’s first super-aged society.

In 2020, MWS became the first charity in Singapore to launch a time-banking rewards programme, allowing people to bank their volunteering hours and redeem them for MWS services and merchandise, or commercial products and services sponsored by partners such as Amore Fitness, NTUC FairPrice Foundation and Sentosa Development Corporation.

While some have argued that time-banking may blur the altruistic focus of volunteer work, it has potential to support social inclusion and promote civic participation. It may also help seniors to remain self-sufficient and live in the community instead of institutions.

Volunteering as a Means of Alleviating Social Poverty

Volunteering is one avenue where seniors can meet like-minded peers and build social bonds which strengthen their sense of belonging in society, and boost their self-esteem and well-being.

The nature of poverty, just like human needs, is multi-dimensional. But while the hardships relating to material poverty is widely discussed, other forms of poverty are less so.  

One example is social poverty, which sociologist Halpern-Meekin (2020) defines as “lacking an adequate number of high-quality, trustworthy relationships to meet one’s socioemotional needs”.

She highlights that “financial and social poverty are not synonymous” and that “one form of deprivation may increase the likelihood of the other, but they need not co-occur”.

Halpern-Meekin added that social poverty “entails social isolation that is more than momentary, and that cannot be addressed through one’s current relational resources”.

Studies have shown that chronic social isolation raises the risks of morbidity and mortality in a way that is on par with the consequences of smoking. Conversely, adults with good social connections are healthier and live longer.

Volunteering is one avenue where seniors can meet like-minded peers and build social bonds which strengthen their sense of belonging in society, and boost their self-esteem and well-being. It also injects a sense of meaning and purpose into their golden years.

The IGS 2018 study found that seniors who volunteer reported better health and life satisfaction than those who do not. Senior volunteers were also 13% more likely to only have minor illnesses or not to fall sick, and 8% more likely to be satisfied with life.

Self-rating of health and life satisfaction among senior volunteers and senior non-volunteers.
Source: Individual Giving Study 2018 - Silver V Study, National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre

Another study by Carnegie Mellon University found that older adults who volunteer at least 200 hours a year faced a 40% reduced risk of high blood pressure.

In addition, senior volunteers aged 65 and above are able to reach out to twice as many people in times of need, as compared to seniors who do not volunteer, suggesting that volunteering could buffer against loneliness and social isolation.

Empowering Seniors for Volunteerism

With Singapore’s aging population, senior volunteers could play a more integral role in beefing up manpower in social service agencies.

At MWS, seniors make up the majority of the 30-strong Volunteer Leaders Support Group, which was formed in 2020 to tap seasoned volunteers to recruit and lead volunteers.

The group plays an important role in uplifting capabilities by supporting volunteer training at MWS centres while enabling the sharing of best volunteer practices and experiences.

One such volunteer leader is Jane Low, who partners MWS staff to plan projects. “We brainstorm ideas for festive celebrations, mobilise manpower and get financial support from partner churches for community projects. We receive on-the-job training to serve the community and lead by example in guiding other volunteers,” said the 65-year-old.

“The seniors are keen to learn new things like origami craft and painting lanterns for Mid-Autumn Festival. They realised that they are capable of accomplishing greater things. When they complete an artwork, you can see from their smiling faces that they felt fulfilled and accomplished,” she added.

“One senior testified that she was very shy initially and didn’t want to mix around. But after joining the Centre activities, she is more confident about herself. She made more friends and is willing to learn new things like the functions on her smartphone.”

Besides serving as a volunteer leader, Jane Low (in black), a former Chinese tutor for primary school children, also guides seniors in reading English and Chinese storybooks

To develop the capacity of volunteers, MWS has rolled out a series of initiatives including launching the MWS Befriender’s Toolkit, which guides volunteers in reaching out to different befriendee profiles; as well as hosting thematic webinars.

“Talks like ‘Understanding Dementia’, ‘Diabetes’ and ‘How to be equipped as Befrienders’ organised by MWS have benefitted and equipped me in understanding the health conditions of the elderly, and empathising with their situations,” shared Jane.

On what motivates her to volunteer, Jane quoted a Bible verse: “As Jesus said: ‘It’s more blessed to give than receive’. After volunteering, I feel joy and peace in my heart.”

“My greatest accomplishment as a volunteer is to see seniors enjoying our programmes, caring for neighbours, becoming more sociable and living meaningful lives in their Third Age.”

At MWS, we have a range of volunteering opportunities for individuals, groups and corporations to contribute to our cause of empowering the disadvantaged and distressed to have life to the full. To find out more, email volunteer@mws.sg or visit mws.sg/volunteer.

What can I do to help?

1. Understand

Take your time to question your beliefs, and find out more about poverty in its many forms. Understand it well enough to explain it to friends/family.

2. Care

Care in your own way! As a first step, you can donate and/or volunteer. You’ll be surprised at how little it takes to help change a life.

3. Share

Sharing is caring! Get others to understand and care about poverty in its many forms. How about sharing this article as a conversation starter?

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