Bored, restless seniors flout Covid-19 safety rules
Some still gather in groups outside; experts urge families to help the elderly adapt to tighter restrictions
He was chatting with three friends at the foot of Block 68 Geylang Bahru, nonchalant about the tightened measures in place since May 16 that capped social gatherings to two people.
The retiree, who wanted to be known only as Mr Anra, told The New Paper he was desperate to get out of his flat as he felt "cooped up within four walls".
Said Mr Anra, 64: "My four children barely speak to me, so I need some socialisation with friends. We have a community of older folks here, and it is a pity we can't meet and talk the way we used to."
Mr Anra was among the pockets of senior citizens that TNP spotted mingling at various heartland locations - Block 68 Geylang Bahru, Block 89 Bedok North Street 4 and Block 806 Hougang Central - over the past week.
There were more than 10 groups of seniors that exceeded the two-person limit.
These groups of between three and eight people gathered at void decks and common areas. Most were chatting, eating and drinking beer.
At Hougang, a group of 12 were also gambling and playing chess. Only about half had their masks on.
Some Hougang residents told TNP it was common to see this group gather almost every evening after dinner.
Mr David Chong, 60, who was chatting with a friend with a drink in hand at Geylang Bahru, said despite the heightened alert, he did not believe such gatherings are an issue as most seniors are fully vaccinated and often keep to groups of two anyway.
"It is so crowded on buses and trains anyway. This is just a small group of people meeting because they feel bored at home," said Mr Chong, who owns a stall at Geylang Bahru market.
"I think we are all hoping that restrictions will ease soon so we can finally dine in. Old people can't be expected to stay at home all day," he added.
He has reason to hope. In an update on May 31, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Singapore should be able to relax tightened restrictions on social gatherings after June 13 if the Covid-19 situation continues to improve and there are fewer community cases.
"We will know for sure in another week or so. Meanwhile, I count on everyone to keep up our efforts and stay vigilant," PM Lee said in a nationwide address.
This means working from home if possible and going out only when necessary, as well as seeing a doctor immediately if unwell - even if one has been vaccinated, he added.
Associate Professor Daniel Goh, deputy head of the National University of Singapore's sociology department, said: "The problem faced by the elderly in this pandemic is that they don't have other avenues to socialise, while younger folks like us have social media and videoconferencing technologies to do so.
"Moreover, many feel that the void deck or the neighbourhood park is a natural extension of their homes, so it is simply instinctual and habitual for them to gather in these spaces."
NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser said it is easy to ignore the invisible virus and think that some self-declared relaxation of the measures would not hurt.
He added that the seniors gather in large groups as they perceive the costs of mingling to be far less than the benefits of being able to connect with friends and neighbours.
Dr Tan said complying with safety measures does require some discipline and deferred gratification.
"However, if they do not practice the safe measures, we could be heading towards a new circuit breaker, which is far worse than what they could do now," he added.
Prof Goh encouraged the children of these senior citizens to set up their living areas to accommodate guests for tea and snacks within the restriction limits.
"If possible, they could also set up some easy videoconferencing tools for their parents," he added.
Mr Daniel Chien, senior group director of Care Corner Seniors Services, encouraged elderly folks to take up new hobbies such as cooking or arts and crafts.
"This heightened safety measures period will soon pass... The pain and suffering if infected by Covid-19 is really not worth the risk to socialise physically at this point," he said.
Since the pandemic started, Care Corner Seniors Services has stepped up the number of phone calls to the elderly who are at risk of social isolation.
Its volunteers also continue to visit vulnerable seniors who live alone.
Retired childcare teacher Betty Goh, 66, said she loves to keep busy with the numerous online IT and cooking courses by the People's Association.
"Because of the stricter measures now, I rarely go out. So I attend these online courses with my sister and I really enjoy them.
"I have learnt how to take photos, edit videos and bake cakes. I even share photos of my bakes on Facebook," said Madam Goh, who has used her SkillsFuture credits on some of these online courses.