Reversing ageing: Are we smothering seniors into helplessness?

Reversing ageing: Are we smothering seniors into helplessness?

An experimental documentary premiering Dec 26 challenges how we think about all older folks as fragile and helpless – and the impact this has on the way they age.

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SINGAPORE – At 76, former cook-show host Asmah Laili, rarely goes out without a wheelchair or walking aid, and relies on helpers to run her sell-out cooking classes.

When challenged to prepare a dessert of bubur somsom on her own without a maid to assist, it’s barely five minutes before she’s breathless and complaining: “I can’t carry this. It’s too heavy. I’m exhausted.”

But then, as the sense of mission grips her, something almost miraculous happens.

She forgets her walking cane.

After getting into a cab and delivering her dessert dish to her former colleagues all on her own two feet, she confesses: “It brings back sweet memories of the past. I did so many things today that I never thought I could ever do all by myself."

As its population ages, Singapore is ramping up healthcare facilities and elderly-friendly infrastructure. But is it missing out on something equally critical in the ageing game?

WATCH: The transformation of a 76-year-old

A new four-part documentary series which premieres on Boxing Day (Dec 26), Turn Back The Clock takes a critical look at how our attitudes, expectations and environment affect the way that seniors age, through a series of social experiments.

For instance: What happens to the mental health of a group of female nursing home residents, when for two weeks they are given control of designing their communal living space – from choosing the wall paint to the potted plants?

WATCH: When nursing home residents are empowered

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And which turns out to be better for boosting brain-power among volunteers in their 50s and 60s – doing Sudoku puzzles, salsa dancing, or pedalling on an exercise bicycle? (The answer might surprise many.)

WATCH: A social experiment on brain-boosting

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At its heart, Turn Back The Clock grapples with the question posed by its executive producer Sharon Hun: “In helping the elderly, are we helping them into helplessness?”

The core of the series is a time-travelling experiment - five participants aged 74 to 78 go on a retreat back to 1977, living for a week in a colonial bungalow done up in everything retro.

Despite their health and mobility issues, the five are made to fend for themselves without any helpers except each other; and to take part in physical and other activities that push them past their pre-conceived limits.

The idea is to see if taking them back to the environment of their glory days, and shedding the degree of helplessness they have come to expect, can reverse the ravages of old age in just one week.

TBTC Harry Chin


For example, artist Harry Chin, 75, who had a mild stroke three years ago, has taken to only going out to paint if his assistant is with him. For his challenge, he’s made to walk for over an hour to the Botanic Gardens, carrying his own equipment.

He says afterwards: “I felt like my old self has returned. I was filled with vitality."

Other participants include football refereeing legend Chandra Nadasan, 76, who is made to referee a proper match for the first time in 28 years; Singapore’s first female army captain Nancy Tan, 74, who returns to her old stomping grounds at Pasir Laba camp; and Tamil drama actress Krishnavani Narayanan, 78, who is pushed to dance for the first time in seven years.

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Monitored remotely by a geriatrician, psychologist and fitness trainer, all the participants also undergo tests of their memory, emotional well-being, strength, balance and flexibility, both before and after the week-long experiment. The final results are revealed in episode 4.

But producer Tang Hui Huan admitted that she and her fellow series producers, Luin Lam and Janessa Wong, found it hard to shake off the idea of the fragile, elderly even as they pushed the five participants.

And when one of the participants took a fall in a crucial scene, they questioned what they were doing.

Thankfully, the participant bounced back quickly. Said Ms Tang: “We have to believe that they are stronger than we think they are, and sometimes it takes this kind of tough love to help them live better and stronger lives.”


So did the one-week retreat made any lasting impact on the participants’ lives? Or did they revert to their old ways afterwards?

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When Channel NewsAsia caught up with a couple of participants roughly two months after the experiment, at a preview screening of the series on Nov 26, some of the changes were clear.

Mr Chandra said he has adopted a more rigorous exercise routine. Aside from swimming twice a week, he climbs 25 flights of stairs on Mondays and Wednesdays. He credits James Tang, the documentary’s fitness consultant.

“When James said that it’ll sort of enhance my memory, I said, why should I let my memory get less and less? I’ve more to gain and nothing to lose,” he said.

As for Mr Chin, a widower, instead of spending his days in solitude with his artwork as he used to, he said: “Getting to know my four friends and making happy memories with them has changed the way I think.”

Explaining that loneliness is an issue commonly faced by the elderly, the documentary’s geriatrician Dr Carol Tan said: “Before that, (Harry) had said, ‘there’s no reason for me to live on.’ But because of his friends, he now has a reason to live on.”

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At the preview screening, guest of honour Mr Chee Hong Tat, Minister of State for Health and for Communications and Information, expressed his hope that Singaporeans would face ageing with optimism.

“It is really about mind over matter,” he said. “Yes, infrastructure needs to be there, but that’s really more like a hygiene factor. It’s necessary, but insufficient. What is actually more important is the right attitude, and care and concern coming from within.”

Turn Back The Clock premieres with a one-hour episode on Monday, Dec 26, at 8pm (SG/HK), as part of the CNA Signatures belt showcasing innovative programmes.

Source: CNA/Yv