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Creating an age-friendly Singapore

Singapore has one of the most rapidly ageing populations in the world. In 1970, 1 in 31 Singaporeans was aged 65 or older. In 2015, it was 1 in 8. By 2030, it will be 1 in 4, which translates to nearly 1 million Singaporeans. [1] Creating a society that is conducive to ageing and our seniors is of utmost importance. Not just through an economic lens, but also from a human lens.

The number of seniors (aged 65 and above) in Singapore living alone is expected to increase in the years to come. In 2012, the number was 31,200. In 2021, it was 64,500. And by 2030, the number is estimated to be 83,000. [2] This is problematic because elderly Singaporeans who live alone are almost twice as likely to be depressed or feel lonely, compared with those who live with others, as reported by an ongoing local study. [3], [4]

Even for seniors who live with their families, many reported feeling socially isolated. In another local study involving seniors who live with their families, 62% out of 1,021 reported feeling socially isolated. And that when faced with personal difficulties, they felt that there was no one they could trust and turn to for help, not even their own family. [5]

Government Initiatives

The Singapore government has always taken a proactive approach in dealing with our ageing population and issues around it. For instance, we have Kampung Admiralty – a “modern kampung” that integrates housing with a wide range of social, healthcare, communal, and commercial facilities designed for the elderly. [6] 

Another example is the $3 billion Action Plan for Successful Ageing launched in 2015. The goal of which is to enable Singaporeans to age gracefully with confidence through an extensive suite of initiatives. [7]

Some initiatives include:

  • The construction and development of 3,600 daycare places; 2,600 homecare places; and 3,700 nursing homes around Singapore

  • The launch of the National Silver Academy that provides some 30,000 learning places for seniors to pursue their interests

  • The expansion of home visitation programmes in at least 50 neighbourhoods to combat social isolation and poor health among vulnerable seniors

Planning for an age-friendly city

According to Kai Wen, Senior Planner of Strategic Research at Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the challenge of an ageing population lies in planning Singapore’s built environment to be more accessible and enjoyable for seniors to live, work, play, and travel. This can be done at three different levels.

At the national level, the aim is to provide adequate healthcare and community facilities as well as jobs and other activities which are well distributed islandwide to cater to the needs of older adults. At the town level, the focus would then be on ensuring that the town and neighbourhood amenities are conveniently located within walking distance for older residents. Last but not least, at the building level, it is important that the facilities and services are made accessible through universal design features such as ramps and hand railings. 

Gaps

Despite various efforts to cater to the needs and aspirations of the ageing population in Singapore, there are still some gaps that need to be plugged.

The first is the lack of diversity when it comes to care options for seniors. Seniors are a diverse group. Not all share the same level of health or wealth. Yet as it currently stands, the options for seniors are largely to either get some services at home, or check in to a nursing home. [5] According to Dr. Wee, founder of the Assisted Living Facilities Association (ALFA), many seniors in nursing homes do not belong there. They require some care, but are too well to be in institutionalised settings. [5]

Assisted living facilities are purported to be much better than traditional nursing homes because they provide much needed dignity and autonomy to resident seniors. In a typical assisted living facility, seniors live together in an age-friendly property by themselves and are provided with care services and other social programmes that they need. 

However, there are only a handful of these facilities in the private sector to meet a burgeoning demand. Fortunately, the government in recent years has started rolling out public assisted living facilities, which they term ‘Community Care Apartments’. The first of which was rolled out back in Feb 2021 in Bukit Batok, with about 200 more upcoming in Health District @ Queenstown, an initiative which aims to enhance the living environment for the older residents.

The second gap is the lack of opportunities for seniors who wish to contribute more to society and their family. When surveyed, 3 in 4 older workers reported that they intend to work past 65. The top reasons include wanting to stay active, have a sense of purpose, maintain social connections, and save up for old age. [8] At the family level, many reported feeling disconnected from their family, even for those living under the same roof. This gap is evident, but what needs to be done?

Mindset Shift

Dr. Kelvin Tan, Head of Programme for Applied Ageing Studies and Senior Lecturer of Gerontology at SUSS, suggests that a mindset shift among all stakeholders is key to filling this gap. Everyone, including seniors themselves, need to start viewing old age as a form of social capital.

For instance, we can empower seniors with digital literacy skills such that they will be able to perform the role of digital nannies for their grandchildren while the parents are working or away. At the same time, having digital literacy enables seniors to better connect and bond with their family. From video calling to enjoying the same media (e.g. TikTok videos) together to having more common topics to engage and interact, these activities will help to break down any barriers in family relationships.

With digital literacy under their belt, seniors can contribute to society in many ways, such as helping other non-digital literate peers. For example, as part of an anti-scam initiative organised by Sengkang Neighbourhood Police Centre, more than 50 digital literate seniors were recruited to teach other seniors in the community all about scams. Thanks to their age and language abilities, they could easily connect and communicate with the other seniors. Dr. Kelvin Tan also connected with Palo Alto Networks of USA to conduct digital and cybersecurity briefings for seniors at three locations under Cheng Hong Welfare Society.

On the work front, we need to be mindful about our attitudes towards seniors. Ageism is avoidable if we adopt an inclusive mindset. Seniors can be re- or up-skilled to keep up with job expectations involving technology. For employers, this means finding ways to leverage the strengths of seniors, supporting them in their learning journeys, and potentially even redesigning jobs to better suit them. [9] For colleagues, this means encouraging seniors to embrace technology, helping them in their learning, and being empathetic if they are unable to do so.

Moving Forward: Gerontechnology and Innovation

There are still plenty of avenues to make Singapore a more age-friendly nation. For starters, we can encourage openness towards gerontechnology. An example is the ‘i-Boleh tablet’, a customised tablet by Lions Befrienders designed to act as a companion for seniors. Apart from serving up entertainment, the tablet also sends out periodic health and exercise reminders, and facilitates communication between seniors and Lions Befrienders staff. [10]

The second example of gerontechnology is LOVOT, a popular companion robot from Japan that is currently being trialled in Orange Valley Active Ageing Center, by Dr. Kelvin Tan and his research team. LOVOT is designed to be warm for a hug and has sensors that make it responsive to touch, mimicking a living pet. Since its launch, requests for such gerontechnology pilots have been pouring in from dementia care and other community places.

Encouraging openness towards gerontechnology also includes injecting innovation in it. And to this end, SUSS has recently set up The Ngee Ann Kongsi Social Impact Hub, where students will be supported in developing new technology, programmes and social enterprises that support the elderly. [12] In addition to The Social Impact Hub, SUSS’s very own Gerontology Programme, which was the first of its kind in Singapore when it first launched 11 years ago, also creates ample opportunities for innovation in the silver sector through collaboration with social services agencies like AWWA. In Jan 2023, SUSS will launch the first Minor in Applied Ageing Studies for both full- and part-time undergraduates.

This article is an adaptation of the “Raising an Ageing Population” podcast. The podcast features Dr. Kelvin Tan, Head of Programme for Applied Ageing Studies and Senior Lecturer of Gerontology at SUSS, and Mr. Wong Kai Wen, Senior Planner of Strategic Research at Urban Redevelopment Authority, who discuss the issue of Singapore’s ageing population and the pressing need to create a more inclusive nation for our seniors. Listen to the podcast here


[1] https://www.moh.gov.sg/ifeelyoungsg/about/what-is-the-action-plan-about

[2] https://statista.com/statistics/1113131/singapore-elderly-single-households-number/

[3] https://agsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jgs.17343

[4] https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/health/earlier-death-among-the-elderly-who-live-alone-compared-to-those-who-live-with

[5] https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/focus-amid-rapidly-ageing-population-what-are-missing-pieces-singapores-residential-eldercare-puzzle-2308441

[6] https://www.hdb.gov.sg/residential/where2shop/explore/woodlands/kampung-admiralty

[7] https://www.gov.sg/article/caring-for-our-seniors

[8] https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/jobs/3-in-4-older-workers-dont-intend-to-retire-before-65-reasons-include-staying-active-having-purpose

[9] https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/politics/budget-debate-job-redesign-mindset-change-needed-to-better-support-older-workers

[10] https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/lions-befrienders-new-customised-tablet-could-become-a-seniors-best-friend

[11] https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/suss-launches-social-impact-hub-to-help-deal-with-singapores-ageing-population

[12] https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/suss-launches-social-impact-hub-to-help-deal-with-singapores-ageing-population

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