The Big Read: Digitally estranged, seniors struggle with sense of displacement in pandemic-hit offline world

The Big Read: Digitally estranged, seniors struggle with sense of displacement in pandemic-hit offline world

While the rest of Singapore turn to video conferencing tools, e-commerce and other forms of online entertainment, many senior citizens are finding their world suddenly hemmed in by the four walls of their homes, especially those living alone.

COVID-19 senior citizen Singapore sitting
An elderly woman is seen sitting down, catching her breath at a void deck on Apr 29, 2020. (Photo: TODAY/Ili Nadhirah Mansor) 

SINGAPORE: For a large part of his day, Mr Sik Kim Kee, a 71-year-old retired driver, will be whiling away his time people-watching at Chong Pang City, a neighbourhood centre in Yishun.

Now that the mid-day crowds are gone since most shops have had to shutter, the environment is quiet and serene - so pleasant that it has caused him to doze off sometimes. 

READ: COVID-19: Ensuring the elderly don't become isolated during the outbreak

Except that loiterers like him are likely to run into safe distancing ambassadors tasked with persuading seniors like him to go home - and stay there - amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

After an encounter with an enforcement officer while sitting on a stray chair outside a barber’s shuttered shopfront on Monday (Apr 27) afternoon, Mr Sik said: “Call me to stay at home? It will cause me to become dumb and crazy. That’s why all the time, every day, I come out.”

Although he did not dare to break the orange nettings or red-and-white tapes that were slapped across public benches in his neighbourhood and sit on them, he was miffed about this particular circuit breaker measure. 

Wagging his finger, he said: “This is too much already. Coffee shop already cannot sit ... Where we want to sit is our business what!” 

He then left on his bicycle, only to be spotted hanging around outside a coffee shop later. 

READ: Commentary: Four ways seniors can stay connected during COVID-19

READ: In full: PM Lee appeals to older Singaporeans to stay at home during COVID-19 'circuit breaker' period

Increasingly, senior citizens like Mr Sik are making their way back into the streets, bored and a little stir-crazy close to a month after the nation’s circuit breaker measures kicked in on Apr 7 to stem a rising tide of infections.

They remained undeterred even as the authorities announced that no more warnings will be given to those caught flouting the rules from Apr 12, and first-time offenders will be fined S$300. The restrictions include a ban on any kinds of gathering at home or in public spaces, including void decks and parks. 

Senior citizens corner COVID-19 cordon
A senior citizens' corner at Choa Chu Kang Street 62 was cordoned off on Apr 21, 2020. (Photo: TODAY/li Nadhirah Mansor) 

Visits to three housing estates found that about three in four of those idling in the streets — both in the day and at night — are older folks, the very group that is considered to be most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. 

But conversations with several of them revealed that the problem goes beyond a wilful desire to ignore the rules. It has more to do with their sense of displacement in a pandemic-hit offline world and their inability to exploit the online world, which has helped to make the circuit breaker period more bearable for younger generations. 

While the rest of the population are turning to video conferencing tools, e-commerce and other forms of online entertainment, many senior citizens are finding their world suddenly hemmed in by the four walls of their homes, especially those who are living alone.

READ: Commentary: COVID-19 is reshaping what work looks like

READ: Commentary: We are becoming a 'dabao nation' – why does it feel like a bad thing?

For this group, their leisure options at home are limited to television and radio, or chatting with their friends on the phone. 

With more than half of Singapore residents aged 65 and above living alone or with their spouses only, the helpless members of this demographic could do with more help from society in navigating this unprecedented crisis, said experts.

A 67-year-old woman who is living alone, and wanted to be known only as Madam Chia, said: “Every day, I face the television. Aiyo, bored until I am going to go crazy! That’s why I go out to ‘buy things’ even though I have nothing to buy since I don’t cook.”

She spoke in Mandarin at around 9.30pm on Monday, while sitting on a public bench near her Bedok flat that was blocked off with a red-and-white tape, with a takeaway cup of coffee by her side. Two other neighbours were hanging out with her, each sitting at different benches to keep 1m distance away from one another.

Mdm Chia, a food court cleaner who was told to stop work after patrons were not allowed to dine in anymore, added: “I normally just work from 7am to 3pm. Now I sit at home with not a thing to do.”

Asked if she had tried coping by speaking to her friends over the phone, she said: “People don’t really like to chat on the phone for too long. They have their kids to take care of. But older people like chit chat. Listen to the radio lor.”

As for using the internet to connect with friends, Mdm Chia said she had tried in vain to learn it many times before. 

“At home I any ‘net’ also don’t have,” she said. “Those people who know how to use the internet … can listen to music, watch shows. Just that I don’t know how.” 

READ: Commentary: Parental warning - these May school holidays will be like no other

READ: Commentary: We cannot allow COVID-19 to disrupt our relationships too

Even if they have learnt how to use certain internet functions, there is a limit to what they would do with them, said Madam Cheong Kit Moi, 78. She started to use chat application WhatsApp late last year but can’t do much with it since she does not know how to read. 

“I am scared that if I press wrongly, then everything will be gone. I have a lot of songs inside my phone,” said the live-alone elderly who used to frequent the Lions Befrienders Senior Activity Centre at Blk 32 Bendeemer Road before the circuit breaker measures were implemented.

She still mainly relies on her landline to connect with a staff member from her senior activity centre and two to three friends. But she is increasingly on her mobile phone these days, sometimes checking out the YouTube app to see what content is available since she does not really know how to do a video search.

READ: COVID-19: Activities for seniors suspended for another 14 days as part of stricter safe distancing measures

But there are others, like Yishun resident Wong Ya Long, who lost their one and only social network with the closure of the seating areas at coffee shops. 

The 77-year-old who lives alone was almost in tears when this reporter asked how the circuit breaker had been for him, as he was walking back to his flat with a takeaway packet of pig organ soup he got from Chong Pang Market and Food Centre. 

“I have nobody to talk to,” he said. He used to pass the time by hanging out with four to five other friends at a coffee shop. They did not have the foresight to exchange phone numbers before the circuit breaker, he lamented.

Wong Ya Long TODAY Big Read
Mr Wong Ya Long, who lives alone in Yishun, used to pass the time by hanging out with friends at the coffee shop but with the circuit breaker, he said: "I have nobody to talk to." Photo: Wong Pei Ting/TODAY Read more at https://www.todayonline.com/big-read/big-read-digitally-estranged-seniors-struggle-sense-displacement-pandemic-hit-offline-world

Then there is Madam Koh Oh Yan who used to be occupied with activities at a Kreta Ayer Senior Activity Centre but now spends a large part of her day sitting at the footsteps of Blk 51 Chin Swee Road, with her mask strapped to her chin, instead of over her nose and mouth.

When approached, the 80-year-old who only speaks Hokkien, said she was waiting for her daughter, whom she said is in her late 50s, to pick her up after work and bring her meals. 

Asked why she does not want to stay home where it is more comfortable and there is the television to keep her entertained, she said: “I don’t know how to switch on the television. I only watch when (my children) are home.” 

Mdm Koh was not really sure why everybody needs to mask up and keep their distance. She appeared confused when told that the Government’s advisory is for elderly to stay home.

She could only reply: “My daughter told me to sit and wait here.”

‘DON’T MAKE SENIORS THE SCAPEGOATS’ 

Since the circuit breaker measures took effect, there have been viral video clips showing seniors not adhering to the rules, attracting criticism of this group as “stubborn”, “ignorant” and “socially irresponsible”. 

However, interviews with the older generation showed that there could be underlying issues which require some attention.  

READ: COVID-19: Man, 71, arrested after he insisted on eating at void deck, refused to leave 

READ: COVID-19: Supermarkets launch dedicated shopping hours for 'vulnerable segments' of community

One of the first incidents which went viral online involved a 71-year-old man who was arrested by the police for disorderly behaviour on Apr 7, after he insisted on eating at a void deck in Bendeemer.

On Apr 12, an elderly woman snapped at a man who reminded her that she needed to put on a mask at People’s Park Centre. In the video clip that was posted on Facebook, she was heard retorting: “If I die, it’s my problem.”

Then on Apr 18, an elderly woman who was confronted for eating her kway chap at Teban Gardens Road Market and Food Centre was heard exclaiming that the new measures have “gone overboard” and are “bullying people”.

When told that she could be fined S$300 for not cooperating, she replied: “Orh gong then orh gong (fine then fine), what am I scared of?” 

As of Wednesday, around 2,900 people were each fined S$300 for not complying with elevated safe distancing measures, and another 800 were fined the same amount for not wearing masks when out, said the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) in response to queries.  

More than 100 among them had repeated their offence, and were given higher fines, it added.

MEWR said it could not provide a breakdown when asked about the proportion of seniors among the offenders. 

READ: COVID-19: More than 7,000 breaches of elevated safe-distancing measures on Day 1 of 'circuit breaker'

Social scientists interviewed felt that many senior citizens are not as savvy as others who make it a point to head out to a park connector or field for example, to get their dose of fresh air. Instead, they loiter around their neighbourhoods. 

They are also less able to evade enforcement efforts, compared with their younger and more mobile counterparts. Singapore Management University (SMU) sociology professor Paulin Straughan said: “Unfortunately the elderly is over-emphasised in the group of those who continue to be ignorant (of the new rules). Why? Because they are so slow. They get caught.”

After coming across the video of the elderly woman who insisted on eating her kway chap, Prof Straughan wrote to Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee to register her discomfort that “scapegoats” are being made out of vulnerable groups in the name of keeping the community safe.

“It’s a class differential,” she added. “You have the poorer and the working class who are all stuck in the heartlands. And those (areas) are very policeable… And then in private estates, in places where you have to drive to get there, there are the more affluent who are not caught.”

Pointing to the elderly woman’s case, Prof Straughan said the issue is rooted in how “it is harder for some to obey”.

“She is old, she has mobility issues, and she just wanted a simple meal. Is there something that we can do for older folks like them?” Prof Straughan said. 

“It is not easy for an older person like her to (use food delivery services)... so the only way for them (to have) this hot meal is to walk there, and by which time the older folks believe that if your meal grows cold, you might as well not eat it because it is no longer nutritious anymore.”

READ: Man admits to abusing police, safe-distancing officers; prosecution pushes for 10 months' jail

For Mr Rashid Rahman, a 65-year-old rental flat resident in Bedok, it was the lack of entertainment options and the heat at home that drove him to gather with others in an open area between Blk 25 and 26 New Upper Changi Road on Monday. 

“It’s super boring because there are no shows to watch… You (turn) on the television, it’s also all ‘Channel 19’ because everything is all about COVID-19,” the former seaman said.

To keep seniors such as Mr Rashid occupied, local broadcaster Mediacorp, pay-TV operators Singtel and StarHub, and other content providers have ramped up their programming during the circuit breaker period. 

Mediacorp, for example, has extended its time belts for Tamil-language channel Vasantham and Malay-language channel Suria, with transmission for both channels now starting from 9am daily.

CONFUSION OVER EVOLVING RULES

Dishwasher Narayanasamy Rajasheker, 59, had been fined S$300 for gathering with three others under a block of flats at Jalan Kukoh, after social gatherings of any size were banned. 

He said: “I am staying in a rental house with so many bedbugs. I’d rather run away from the bedbugs … than go back home.” 

He now spends his day at a stairway close to his flat, constantly on the lookout for enforcement officers.

READ: All residents and staff at nursing homes to be tested for COVID-19, some employees to be housed on-site or at hotels

READ: Commentary: You can enjoy jogging even by yourself

Mr Narayanasamy added that the rules are changing too quickly for him to keep up. 

“I thought that time they say gatherings of no more than 10 people are allowed. We were four people only, but I still kena (suffer the consequences),” he said. 

Mr Quek Swee Ann, a 65-year-old Chin Swee Road resident who relies on social assistance payouts to get by, also has problems keeping up with the frequently updated rules.

“If we sit 1m away from one another, why cannot?” he said. “Chairs were built for the elderly to sit. Why do they have to (cordon everything off)?” 

Mr Quek was not aware that the Housing and Development Board (HDB) had worked with town councils to close public spaces, including void decks, to improve compliance to the circuit breaker measures. 

He added: “Sitting at home for too long will give us dementia. It’s also an illness.” 

Mr Quek, who uses a mobility scooter, now plays a cat-and-mouse game with enforcement officers. “If I see them, I will circle the area and come back,” he said.  

Nevertheless, he said he had heard Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s “special appeal” to older Singaporeans to stay home on Apr 10, the fourth day of the circuit breaker, which originally was set to end on May 4 but has now been extended to Jun 1.

READ: 102-year-old woman among those infected with COVID-19 at Lee Ah Mooi nursing home

READ: Commentary: Reading can be a useful escape from the circuit breaker in more ways than one

PM Lee, who is 68, had said: “I am one of you, so I know how you feel. When we are cooped up at home, we get restless and frustrated … But please understand: We are telling you to stay at home for your own safety. Older people are more vulnerable to the virus. If we catch COVID-19, it is a serious matter. Our chances of dying are much higher.”

To date, the 16 people who have died in Singapore due to the coronavirus are above the age of 55 — the youngest being a 58-year-old woman, and the oldest a 95-year-old man.

Dr Tan Ern Ser, an associate professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said those like Mr Quek are a “small but highly visible minority” who view the Government’s attempt to provide some degree of normalcy — allowing people to exercise and buy groceries — as “creating grey areas” which they can exploit.

Also, since the community transmission in Singapore is not as pronounced as other countries, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Assistant Professor Saifuddin Ahmed said these individuals may have a “false sense of optimism” that the virus is not as harmful, and they will not be affected. 

“They do not want to live with a fear of the unknown which they overcompensate with optimism,” said Asst Prof Saifuddin, who is from NTU’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI). “This seriously misguides their risk evaluation of the situation,” he added. 

Still, Associate Professor of Law Eugene Tan from SMU recognised that these non-compliant citizens may be trying to regain some semblance of normalcy and stability in their lives that have been disrupted, without the intent of breaking the law.

“Many of us may not fully understand the depth of their sense of displacement,” he said, pointing out that the changes had been swift and significant, requiring dramatic behavioural change in a short span of time.

HELPING SENIORS COPE WITH PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPACT

Mental health practitioners noted that non-compliance by some seniors could be a result of various states of depression or anxiety, partly triggered by the one-month extension of the circuit breaker.

They noted that everyone’s resilience is being tested now but while more working adults have stepped forward to seek help, not many seniors have done so.

“This is an indication of how much our elderly need help. They don’t know where to go, and won’t step forward,” said Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist in private practice.

Clinical psychologist Joel Yang, who runs Mind What Matters clinic, observed that some are feeling that there is “no point to living”, now that their freedom is stripped away. Some even think that “if you keep me at home, it is as good as ending my life as well”, he added.

READ: Commentary: A home can heal in the time of coronavirus

READ: Commentary: Lockdown and isolation sound simple – but keeping people at home is no easy answer

Mr Praveen Nair, a psychologist at Raven Counselling and Consultancy, felt that the restrictions are affecting the older demographic extra hard. He also felt that the Government’s gradual stepping up of COVID-19 measures has added to frustrations and created anxiety among some people. 

“When people are in times of crisis, they kind of want a directive approach … You tend to want someone to give you the answer,” he added.  If that is absent, it "creates a lot of psychological issues”.  

However, WKWSCI associate professor Benjamin Hill Detenber pointed out that like Singapore, most countries have also opted for a phased approach in response to the coronavirus.

“What’s different about our case is that there have been various measures in place since January, and as the situation changes, so does the strictness of the measures,” he said.

“Some may find it confusing, or hard to keep up, but that’s the nature of an adaptive response.”

Geylang Serai market COVID-19 Singapore
A woman at the Geylang Serai market trying to buy groceries through a make-shift barrier on April 24, 2020 after she was denied entry because she did not have her identity card. (Photo: TODAY/Wong Pei Ting) 

Still, the experts suggested reducing a reliance on crude instruments of legal penalties such as fines, or complementing penalties with a more nuanced monitoring of social activities in neighbourhoods.

“It would be great if the current social distancing measures are tailored for the needs of different districts in Singapore rather than that of a one-size-fits-all,” said academic researcher Liew Kai Khiun, who recently left his post as assistant professor at WKWSCI.

Prof Straughan added: “In cases where there is clearly an information gap or a knowledge gap, just throwing a book at them is not going to solve the problem. Filling the knowledge gap is important … (Likewise,) we need to exercise compassion where there are gaps.”

In fact, Mr Nair suggested that incentivising positive behaviours.

“If you really want people to follow something, it is better to give a reward,” he said. “For instance, if we come up with a national lottery system that grants people who stay at home for a certain number of hours the chance to win a S$100 prize, people will stay home.”

A COMMUNITY EFFORT 

Mr Kavin Seow, senior director of the elderly group at Touch Community Services, felt that the community should view seniors with “greater understanding, patience and empathy”.

“While some seniors understand the need for strong measures, others may struggle with the increasing sense of isolation as they are cooped up in their flat,” he said. This is especially so for seniors with underlying conditions such as depression or dementia.

READ: Elderly woman dies alone in Malaysia, family in Singapore struggles with funeral arrangements amid COVID-19 restrictions

READ: Commentary: For your neighbours’ sake, turn the volume down this stay-home period

He suggested making more frequent phone calls to touch base with the less-connected elderly who live alone.

Lions Befrienders, which conducts outreach to lonely seniors and runs 10 senior activity centres across the island, also relies on phone calls to check on the elderly — some of whom are also calling the centre daily to ask if it has resumed operations.

“We’ll have real conversations and find out how they are doing … we will also ensure that their needs are met and find out how we can help them,” said its spokesperson.

The centre is also suggesting activities, games and handicrafts which the seniors can do by spreading the information over a number of phone calls so as not to overwhelm them with too much information at one go.

As for the seniors who are out on the streets on their own, Mr Seow said other members of the community, such as hawkers, coffee-shop workers and younger neighbours, can play the critical role of being the support groups’ “eyes and ears on the ground”. 

They “can provide timely help to seniors in distress”, said Mr Seow, who noted that most of Touch’s staff are telecommuting and monitoring seniors remotely. 

When asked if authorities cater its approach when engaging senior citizens on the streets, MEWR said the Government has been looking into “targeted approaches” to reach various groups in the community. 

For instance, to better engage vulnerable groups, such as the elderly who may need more assistance and support, the HDB has been collaborating with social service agencies Montfort Care and Fei Yue Senior Activity Centre to advise elderly frequenting areas such as Chinatown, Redhill, Bedok and Chua Chu Kang to stay home.

Some requiring further support were also referred to the Agency for Integrated Care or Ministry of Social and Family Development, it added.

NOT JUST SENIORS BREAKING THE RULES

While the spotlight is often on seniors for not complying with the circuit breaker rules — going by the number of viral videos going around — they are definitely not the only group.  

Some younger Singaporeans interviewed had little qualms in risking fines — and their health. 

A 23-year-old undergraduate, who admitted to breaking the rules twice so far to meet her boyfriend, said she had sought to evade detection by dressing up “super casually”, as though she was home, when she visited his place.

Nevertheless, she has established some “ground rules” with her 25-year-old boyfriend including minimising physical proximity with their respective family members and leaving the house alone to buy meals. 

A 26-year-old woman — who had driven to her 27-year-old boyfriend’s house last Saturday to bring him some cheesecake — said she would have given the excuse of delivering food to him if she had been confronted by an enforcement officer. 

“I thought it wouldn’t be an issue since some food delivery people don’t wear (a uniform),” said the design firm employee, who declined to be named.

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