Saturday 18 April 2015

Foster a new kampung spirit

By Geraldine Soh, Published The Straits Times, 17 Apr 2015

THERE is much talk of reviving that "kampung spirit" from the idyllic 1960s. But is that notion outdated, given that "kampungs", or rather modern communities, are now home to a very different mix of people who need to be engaged in vastly different ways?

These questions came up as another volunteer and I spent some months knocking on 300 doors at a Housing Board block in central Singapore. We wanted to identify at-risk seniors over 60 years old so we can support them where possible. A secondary goal was to recruit volunteers for our daycare centre as a first step towards community building.

We thought seniors, particularly elderly couples, would be the first to sign on. But we were wrong.

Of the 300 households - mainly three-room flats - we visited, 162 responded. The other units were either empty or no one answered.

Of those who responded, 22 households had seniors who needed help or monitoring due to, for example, poor vision.

Others with at-risk seniors were looked after by their helper, spouse or child, so they were considered safe and their interest to volunteer not sought.

Only 10 residents eventually agreed to volunteer and only four are locals, including one senior.

Forty-six other residents who appear fit enough to volunteer declined - 27 of them are seniors and 10 have elderly spouses.

The "V" word turned many seniors off for various reasons.

"If we help other seniors, then who will help us?" one elderly couple asked. They told us their children paid for their meals and rent. But no, the couple do not wish to volunteer.

Another uncle said he likes fishing but would prefer to join an existing group than to start and lead one. We are to call him if such a group was ever set up.

Then there are the highly active seniors who have all but sworn off volunteering. Previously regulars at several centres and clubs nearby, they said they have had enough of the petty quarrels and of being unfairly treated by staff.

Other seniors are still working or have to mind the grandchildren and so have no time. One man was still trying to cope with the loss of his mother to whom he was the sole caregiver.

The default understanding of volunteerism also appears to be that it requires frequent involvement in activities the seniors did not necessarily like.

When we suggested that cooking an extra pot of green bean soup every quarter also counts as volunteering, one senior was surprised. "Really? I could just do that?" she asked.

Some seniors also disliked getting involved with the care centre folks who they felt looked "rather sad with nothing to do but watch TV and eat".

In contrast, the "V" word was greeted with far more enthusiasm by the foreigners among the residents.

Six of the 10 residents who agreed to volunteer come from India, Myanmar, China and the Philippines.

A grandma from India was extremely eager to teach our seniors yoga while the fathers and mothers thought volunteering was a great way to spend their and their children's spare time. The Filipino bachelor wants to teach seniors computing basics.

Maybe it is their desire to fit in or perhaps they value neighbourliness highly. Whatever it is, they seemed genuinely keen to play a more active role but did not know how.

Knocking on their sometimes tightly bolted doors helped us reach out to them.

It also exposed us to the possibility of a new kampung spirit with a more foreign flavour. If Aunt May needs company and only Grandma from India is willing to help, then residents need to be prepared for and to accept that.

One way to popularise volunteering is to focus on seniors, not the activity. Find out what matters to them first and address their concerns.

Then find, or create, a suitable activity and set targets. Seniors are so diverse a group that forcing them into pre-set activities could drive many away.

To keep them coming back, positive well-being, social support and activity significance matter.

A study of 207 older American volunteers found that withdrawals were mainly due to poor programme administration, declining health of the senior and the emergence of new commitment.

For seniors in poorer neighbourhoods, mere incentives may not be as effective as improving their access to services, providing crucial information that means something to them and helping them transit from aid recipient to full-fledged volunteer.

To rally the community, design is used in Hong Kong to document changes in a neighbourhood prior to demolition. The process draws residents into the project and, from collaboration, a community emerges. Other activities such as farming or collecting artefacts for a purpose are also useful tools to kickstart the process. The key is to focus on what matters to residents.

Talk of reviving the kampung spirit is as good as wishing we could live in the 1960s again.

It makes more sense to accept the changing landscape but seek new ways to foster a common spirit. 

Our way is to first address residents' concerns, then invite them to join us at the centre.

Perhaps it is only when we have met their needs that they will start to think about ours and the bigger picture.

The writer has just completed her Master in Gerontology at SIM University

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