Tuesday 19 November 2013

Mail, and social call, for Taiwan's elderly

But postal service provider now seeks to institutionalise free visits to senior citizens
By Lee Seok Hwai, The Sunday Times, 17 Nov 2013

Postman Di Ya-me delivers some 150 express letters and parcels around the southern Taiwanese city of Tainan every weekday morning. These days, she also delivers a little something extra: good cheer to elderly folk who live alone.

Checklist in hand, Madam Di spends about five to 10 minutes with each senior, chatting and asking questions about their health and ailments.

If they have any requests that she cannot handle, she will write them down and submit them to the town's social affairs bureau.

"There are many seniors whose spouses have died, or whose children have left for other cities to work and can't take care of them," said Madam Di, 48. She has been working as a postman for 23 years, and started visiting the seniors two years ago.

"Some of them are not in good health and need help in the form of delivered meals, for example," she added. "Many of them simply need someone to talk to, to feel the concern of society."

At the Tainan Post Office in southern Taiwan where she is based, 69 of 550 postmen have signed up to visit senior citizens who live alone, usually while delivering mail.

In all, they visit more than 270 home-alone senior citizens regularly, chatting with them and doing basic home repairs like changing light bulbs.

This free voluntary service has reached 9,200 seniors across the island, said Ms Chen Yu, a spokesman for Chunghwa Post, Taiwan's government-owned postal service provider, which launched the service in 2006.

Chunghwa Post now wants to institutionalise the service to tap a rapidly ageing population while rejuvenating its loss-making postal business.

In doing so, it is taking a leaf from Japan, which introduced a similar service last month in selected remote regions with a high proportion of aged residents.

For a basic monthly fee of 1,050 yen (S$13), usually paid by the children, postmen visit seniors once a month to check on their living conditions and health. The post office also provides a 24-hour health consultation hotline and organises regular meal gatherings.

Chunghwa Post's chairman Ong Wen-chyi told the parliamentary transportation committee last week that with 1,320 post offices around Taiwan, the outfit is well-placed to offer elderly care services.

A team of officials will visit Japan next month on a study trip. Chunghwa Post plans to submit a formal proposal on the new service to the government in February.

As of now, charity groups are already tapping the comprehensive postal network.

Said Mr Chen Yi-hsien of the Jin Zhi Shan Buddhist charity in the southernmost county of Pingtung: "We approached the local post office in 2010 to help us send parcels with meals, blankets and adult diapers to seniors.

"They were very willing to help. The postmen also help us monitor the living conditions of the seniors."

Madam Tu Ah-Chen, a 84-year-old widow who lives on her own in a traditional brick house on the outskirts of Tainan, seemed delighted to see Madam Di when the latter visited during one of her deliveries last week, holding her hand and excitedly pulling out chairs.

Speaking in the Minnan dialect, she updated the postman on how she has been spending her days.

At times, the postmen, distinctively attired in green overalls - green being the colour of bamboo, the traditional Chinese metaphor for letters - are called in to handle problems more complex than a fused light bulb.

Mr Chien Huang-jung of the Tainan Post Office, for example, was once asked by 80-year-old Kuo Yuen-ming, who is divorced and childless, to help him submit the necessary paperwork in order to apply for a higher subsidy from the municipal government.

With Mr Chien's help, Mr Kuo succeeded in increasing his monthly allowance from NT$12,000 (S$500) to NT$16,000 (S$670).

"I really like this job," said Mr Chien, 56. He joined the post office in 1980 and still does his rounds on a motorbike. "We get to meet all kinds of people."

Ms Chen, the Chunghwa Post spokesman, said feedback from the elderly and their families on the voluntary service has been positive.

"If we're going to start charging, there will be a need to lay down more formal guidelines on the services included to avoid misunderstandings or complaints," she said. "For now the service stays free."


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