Singapore

Looking for more senior volunteers

They may be silver themselves, but it's not stopping a growing bunch of seniors from volunteering. JUDITH TAN (juditht@sph.com.sg) speaks to three who are paying it forward

Watching energetic housewife K. Rangithamalar lead the exercise class at a Care Corner in Toa Payoh, one can be forgiven for thinking that she is much younger than the 20 senior citizens taking part.

The 60-year-old is among the growing silver brigade of volunteers helping out in the community.

RSVP Singapore, the organisation of senior volunteers launched by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in October 1998, says that it has 1,100 senior volunteers in its ranks and the number is climbing.

Its executive director Edmund Song, 61, says: "But we hope more will come forward. The reason why seniors don't volunteer is that they're not approached."

"First-time volunteers also do not know how to get involved. We are hoping we can provide opportunities for them through our National Senior Volunteer Month campaign."

Despite its name, the National Senior Volunteer Month campaign will last till the end of the year.

Mr Ngiam Tong Yuen, who chairs the campaign's committee, says: "Active volunteerism will help our seniors live healthier and mentally-stimulating lives after retirement, enabling them to continue contributing meaningfully to society's development.

With their talents, our seniors can make a difference at every level of society, from mentoring at-risk children to engaging the less privileged."

Madam Rangithamalar says it is a sense of paying it forward that prompted her to volunteer her time.

Four years ago, an accident left her paralysed and it was through support from strangers that she is walking again.

She says she was playing golf at Orchid Country Club when the golf buggy hit a bump.

"I fell out and the golf buggy fell and landed on my spine, breaking it... My screams of pain could even be heard by a friend who was playing two flights behind us," she recalls.

The orthopaedic surgeon had told her husband, retired air force colonel Frank Singam, that she had only a 10 per cent chance of ever walking again.

Says Madam Rangithamalar: "Frank was told not to expect too much and to be thankful I could move my bowels and urinate normally."

She was transferred to Ang Mo Kio Thye Hua Kwan Community Hospital two months later.

CHEERING HER ON

"It was there that I went through physiotherapy twice a day to regain strength in my legs.

"Everyone was there to motivate me to walk again. My friends, my family and even strangers - patients in the same ward, their family members, the staff - were cheering me on," she says.

She remembers that it was during Chinese New Year of 2012 that she started feeling sensation in her left toe. It then twitched, she says.

There was no looking back. Six to eight months later, she was taking the first few steps and in another nine months, Madam Rangithamalar was walking again, albeit slowly.

Everyone cheered her on.

"They even clapped when I made progress. They were happy for me and not expecting anything in return," she recalls with a smile.

"That was why I made up my mind to pay it forward. I decided to volunteer my time and help others. Then I found out from a friend that through RSVP Singapore, an organisation of senior volunteers, I could do just that. So I signed up to help senior citizens, children and other people in need," she says.

She joined in 2013. These days, she goes to the Care Corner in Toa Payoh to lead senior citizens there in exercises twice a week, spending an hour and a half there each time.

And she does so despite having pain in the back once in a while.

Whenever RSVP Singapore organises events, she would volunteer to help out.

"I'm doing this for selfish reasons. I feel that by paying it forward, it makes me happy to be alive and well again," she says.

Seamstress teaches e-classes to senior citizens

EAGER: Retired seamstress Yeong Yuen Hoe (above) teaching computer classes to senior citizens (top).

She had just retired in 2005 but former seamstress Yeong Yuen Hoe, 70, was going "crazy" staring at the four walls in her flat.

"I was bored sitting at home, twiddling my thumbs. There is just so much TV one can watch," she says.

It was about a year later that she saw a flier on computer classes for senior citizens.

"I wanted to keep my mind active and myself occupied so I signed up for it," she adds.

Madam Yeong, who studied in a Chinese school, was not well-versed in the English language and had never touched a computer before, let alone search for anything online.

"So I just followed what the instructor said. She said click, I clicked, without understanding what I was doing. Each lesson was three hours and after nine hours I knew only how to turn on the computer. So paiseh (Hokkien for embarrassed)," she recalls, laughing at the memory.

PERSEVERED

Not wanting to give up, Madam Yeong, a divorcée, persevered. She took additional computer and English classes and even bought a personal computer to practise at home.

A year later, she was made a teacher's assistant and eventually, a certified trainer in July 2009.

Today, she teaches a class of between 25 and 30 senior citizens.

"I am in charge of the practice session, held every Tuesday for two hours. If there are courses to conduct, it will involve three hours a session. Sometimes, I have to conduct two classes a day," she says.

"I teach them the basics - e-travel, e-transaction, e-communication and digital photo and video management courses. I teach them about e-mail and e-entertainment, where they access serials online to watch," she adds.

"With the advancement in technology, this is the only way for the elderly to stay in touch with children and grandchildren who may be based overseas," she says.

Madam Yeong has stopped watching TV altogether and spends most of her time online.

"This way, I learn new things to teach my students and get them up to speed with the changes," she says.

"I was bored sitting at home, twiddling my thumbs. There is just so much TV one can watch."

- Madam Yeong Yuen Hoe, 70

Teaching dialects to the young, English to the old

FUN: Mr Chan Pit Heng (above) teaches the elderly basic English in fun ways like karaoke (top).

Retired civil servant Chan Pit Heng, 74, was concerned that a non-dialect speaking younger generation would not be able to help the elderly efficiently.

"I saw how service staff at the pharmacy were having a difficult time instructing the older patients when and how many times they had to take the medication," he says.

Having worked as a laboratory manager at Changi General Hospital, he understood how much was "lost in translation".

"There are certain words in Hokkien or Cantonese that cannot be translated literally into Mandarin," he says.

"For instance, there is no word in Hokkien for physiotherapist. To the older folks, they only know terms like doctors, nurses and clerks. So if you tell them to go see the exercise nurse, then they will get it," he explains.

GIVING BACK

After his retirement in 2005, Mr Chan "decided to give back to society".

Through friends, he learnt about RSVP and "since I possess the necessary professional skills and knowledge, I decided to 'donate' them through teaching," he says.

He teaches basic English to the elderly so that they "use the right terms for the right things".

"It's nothing formal. For instance, I started karaoke sessions to get the senior citizens versed in the tone and pronunciation in a fun way," says the grandfather of five.

Mr Chan says: "By sharing your skills and experience with the community, you will also benefit because you lead a fulfilling and meaningful life."

"By sharing your skills and experience with the community, you will also benefit because you lead a fulfilling and meaningful life."

- Mr Chan Pit Heng, 74

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