Monday 16 July 2012

Seniors live it up

Being busy and active help keep senior citizens, many of them grandparents, in good health
By Eve Yap, The Straits Times, 15 Jul 2012

Madam Josephine Roman, a grandmother of two, cannot wait for her bi-monthly rowing sessions.

The 71-year-old rises bright and early every other Saturday to take part in this physically taxing sport.

She is at Thomson Community Club, a stone's throw away from her home, by 9am and from there, she and a dozen dragonboaters are taken by bus to Bedok, Seletar or Lower Pierce reservoir for two hours of fun in the sun.

'The minute I push the paddle against the water and feel the fresh air out there, I feel liberated,' says Madam Roman, who learnt to swim in her 60s and has been rowing for two years.

Her days are packed. If it is not badminton, it is fuzion ball or taiji rhythmic ball and sudoku on Thursday nights. Saturday evenings are for karaoke.

'I like to keep busy,' says Madam Roman, who married at 17 and was 'free by the time I was 40' as her three children were all grown up.

Mr Andrew Yeong and his wife Madam Kuan Kim Kian have four grandchildren and have been helping at South West Community Development Council for the last 10 years, packing goodie bags, handing out water bottles and acting as route marshalls for mass events from the National Day Parade to the Sundown Marathon.

These grandparents are shining examples of active seniors. The Government is encouraging such activities through a stream of schemes.

For example, Singapore's five CDCs launched a Caring For The Silver Community initiative last month. It aims to reach out to 114,000 senior citizens over the year and get them to take part in activities or volunteer to organise them for their friends.

The People's Association's four-year-old Wellness Programme, which includes getting seniors aged 50 and above to go for health checks and widen their social circle, is currently available in 42 constituencies.

It will be rolled out to the remaining 45 constituencies by the end of March next year. Singapore now has 1.1 million people aged 50 and above. By 2030, the pool of seniors aged 65 and older will triple to 900,000.

Apart from eating well and exercising regularly, seniors must guard against isolation, says Dr Joanne Kua, 33, associate consultant at the department of geriatric medicine at Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

Mingling with peers and family members enables seniors to 'guard against depression and reduce loneliness', leading to improved health, she adds.

Past media reports show that since 2007, at least 52 elderly people died alone in their homes.

'Perception bias' must change, says Mr Gerard Ee, 62, chairman of Council for Third Age, which promotes active ageing to a silver population. He says: 'We often think of seniors as kind, dependable or frail and conversely, many seniors may perceive younger people as impatient, arrogant or tech-savvy. Whether positive or negative, the stereotypes impact how we treat each other.'

Communities can plan events that bring youth and seniors together. And families should involve three generations in their activities, he says.

That is what housewife Ng Kim Kee, 71, did for the Pink Ribbon Walk for breast cancer last year. Her eight-strong team included her children, their spouses and two grand-daughters.

She and her retiree husband, who does not wish to be named, also have two sons. They live with two of their children in an executive apartment in Bukit Batok.

Mrs Ng, who brisk-walks for about half an hour most mornings, will take part in the 5km Great Eastern Women's Run in November with her daughters.

The activities have helped her mend her couch-potato ways. 'I now watch one hour of Korean drama serials a day, compared to four or five hours before,' she says.

Retired police inspector and former star hurdler Osman Merican, 72, says he cannot bear to see seniors 'sitting around at void decks to pass their time'.

The grandfather of three, who was previously married to fellow star hurdler Heather Merican, will organise his first potluck lunch next month or so. He targets about 30 fellow seniors and their family members in his block in Sengkang, where he lives with his current wife, real estate agent Cilia Koh, 46.

He goes fishing, takes weekly walks by the beach and meets friends once or twice a week at the Ceylon Sports Club in Balestier to 'sing, dance and talk about current affairs'. He also paints abstracts and his hobby of two decades brings in some spare cash.

For qigong instructor Sim Yang Oh, 72, the sport renewed his strength after his wife died in 2000. He teaches at the North West Health Qigong Clubs on Mondays to Saturdays, to a weekly total of about 300 seniors at Woodlands Stadium.

The retired clothing shop assistant lives with the youngest of his three children in a four-room flat just across the road from the stadium. The grandfather of four says: 'Volunteering and exercising is much better than staying at home and facing the four walls.'

Grandpa is swim coach

He has four grandchildren aged 18 to 29, and teaches a group of about 40 'younger' people in their 50s and 60s swimming every Saturday.

The group, many of them grandmothers, meet at a pool in a resort in the east, for about an hour from 7.30am, then go home to look after their grandchildren.

'Many seniors dare not step into the water because of their age. I show them that if I can do it, so can they,' says Mr Chong, adding that strokes and breathing techniques will be taught later.

As a member of the Elias Rise Residents' Committee's (RC) executive team for senior citizens, he also leads 40 seniors in daily qigong exercises at Pasir Ris Park, organises bi-monthly local outings as well as ad hoc getaways to places such as Kukup in Malaysia and Batam in Indonesia.

His swim team began with five or six people four years ago because his RC members knew that he could swim well, says Mr Chong, who used to do 20 laps at one go as a young man.

'Being in charge of a group and having students who respect me give me renewed confidence in my golden years,' he says.

'If I have no activities to be involved in, it will be hard to pass the time,' adds the sprightly senior who retired only at 72.

He says he is lucky that his two daughters and a son, who now run his trading business, are filial. They give him and his wife, Madam Cheow Neok Ngor, 75, regular allowances, though he has set aside a modest 'retirement fund'.

The couple live with their son and his family in a four-room Pasir Ris flat. He says: 'I am grateful for my family's support so I can age gracefully, without much worry.'

She teaches needy kids

The former teacher believes that education is the key to social mobility, which is why she started a literacy centre at Toa Payoh East Community Club three years ago.

Every Saturday, she, two teachers and 20 volunteers from the Lasallian Youth Mentors, a Catholic charity, coach about 30 children from needy homes at the centre.

For three hours, the kids, aged five to 13, read storybooks, do worksheets and play games to improve their vocabulary and mathematics.

The children were referred to the StarHub-Central Singapore Nurture programme by the Central Singapore Community Development Council. As this CDC funds the activity, the kids attend free of charge.

'They come from homes with three to four children and the family does not stress studies,' says Madam Goh, who visited some of their homes before starting the scheme in 2009.

A disciplinarian with 40 years of teaching experience, she casts an eye over the group, checking unruly behaviour and foul language.

Improved marks prove that the coaching and counselling sessions have helped. She says: 'When they started, some of them scored only 10 per cent for English and maths. Their marks went up to about 40 per cent over two years.'

She also helps out with the Lions Befrienders, distributing sponsored lunch boxes for 60 seniors at Block 31 in Toa Payoh every Sunday, as well as with church work.

The rest of the time, she takes care of her husband, Mr John Goh, 71, a cancer survivor, and nine grandchildren, aged one to 16.

Stay in good shape

Start eating well and keeping fit 'as early in your adult years as possible' to stay healthy in your 70s and 80s, says Dr Joanne Kua, 33, associate consultant at the department of geriatric medicine at Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

Diet: Common-sense tips prevail. For instance, use less salt, drink more plain water, limit high-fat foods and cut down alcohol intake. Also consider multivitamin supplements, says Dr Kua.

Keep fit: Go for brisk walks or swim to keep your heart, lungs and blood vessels healthy. Carry weights so that muscles and bones stay strong, or do flexibility activities such as taiji that get you moving more easily as you age. Aim to have at least 30 minutes of such physical activity on most days of the week, says Dr Kua.

Plan for finances: Financial consultant Koh Geok Lan, 49, says assuming a 35-year-old wants to retire at age 62 on an income of $1,500 a month (at today's value), it would mean saving about $2,000 a month now. That is because the sum translates to $5,600 a month in 27 years' time when he retires, taking into account an inflation rate of 5 per cent yearly and projected rate of returns of 3.5 per cent yearly to give the desired income from retirement age till, say, 85.

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