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Reunited after hours gone missing: How people with dementia get help from SMRT staff at train stations

By the end of this year, all 98 SMRT train stations will be listed as dementia Go-To-Points.

02:46 Min
By the end of this year, all 98 SMRT train stations will be listed as dementia Go-To-Points. This is where the public can bring persons with dementia who might be lost, to be cared for by staff trained to handle such cases. Sherlyn Seah with more.

SINGAPORE: It was meant to be a short trip to a salon in Boon Keng to get a haircut, but Ms Sharon Wong’s 78-year-old father ended up missing for more than six hours last year.

Mr Wong Mun Leong was diagnosed with dementia about five years ago. Since then, he has been wearing a lanyard with his identity card but on the fateful day, he had removed it to get his haircut. 

The family’s former domestic worker, who was tasked to look after the elderly man, had been distracted by her phone and did not notice him slipping out of the salon after he was done. 

“Of course, everybody panicked. … (I felt) fear, anger definitely. If (he) goes missing, it’s forever. Nobody can replace (him),” said Ms Wong, a 41-year-old project executive in the construction industry.

“Boon Keng is not big, but of course you have to go around. I called my friend who lives nearby to ask them to look out for my dad. My brother also activated his friend to look around. I even activated my friend who’s a Grab driver.”

Ms Wong’s family also made a police report. 

It was nearly 11pm when her family received a call from the Public Transport Security Command (TransCom) informing them that her father had been found at Tai Seng MRT station by station manager Suriani Lestution Ja'afar. 

Ms Suriani was one of the more than 3,000 SMRT employees who has been trained to spot and help people living with dementia, with the support of the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC) and Dementia Singapore. More colleagues will soon join her in this effort.

By the end of this year, all 98 SMRT train stations across Singapore on the North-South, East-West, Circle and Thomson-East Coast lines will be listed as dementia “Go-To-Points”, SMRT announced on Sunday (Feb 27). 

Currently, 46 train stations and all four SMRT-operated bus interchanges are dementia Go-To-Points.

“These GTPs (Go-To-Points) serve as resource centres and ‘safe return’ points where members of the public can bring persons living with dementia who appear lost or unable to remember their way home,” SMRT said in a media release.

“SMRT’s station and interchange staff are trained to identify and assist the persons who have been brought to them, and will assist to reunite them with their caregivers.”

TRAINED TO SPOT POTENTIAL PEOPLE WITH DEMENTIA 

Recalling how she identified the missing Mr Wong, Ms Suriani said a group of tertiary students had approached the passenger service centre to inform them that the elderly man had tailgated them through the gantry. 

Having been trained to spot people who may have dementia, the signs were clear. 

“The way he smiles … like very calm, but when you ask him where is he, where he’s going, he’s unable to answer,” Ms Suriani, 40, told CNA. 

Mr Wong also mentioned that he wanted to go to a kampong at Lorong Tai Seng which no longer exists. She later found out that it was his childhood home. Some patients with dementia tend to have difficulty with recent memory but remember events from long ago.

“I felt this is where I should step out to help him, because he had no (form of identification) with him,” said Ms Suriani. 

“That’s when I brought him to the staff room to make him comfortable, make him hot drinks. I’m not sure when was the last time he drank (something).”

Ms Suriani looked through an app by AIC called Dementia Friends, but there was no notification about a lost elderly man that matches Mr Wong. 

Eventually, she contacted TransCom, which took a photo of Mr Wong and liaised with its official command centre. From the photo, they were able to locate Mr Wong’s next-of-kin in about an hour, as there were previous records of Mr Wong having gone missing. 

Ms Suriani said that in her 12 years with SMRT, she did not encounter anyone with dementia in her first five years of service. But the number has increased in recent years. 

She added that her late father showed signs of dementia, so she understands the “feeling of anxiousness” and “nervousness” of being a caregiver. 

As such, dementia Go-To Points can help to “reassure passengers in case they have missing parents”, she said. 

For instance, if they live near an MRT station, they can approach the passenger service centre to ask if the station staff have seen their loved ones. If not, employees can help to make a report so other stations would be on the lookout too. 

HELPING PEOPLE WITH DEMENTIA LIVE INDEPENDENTLY 

Since the launch of AIC’s Dementia Friends app, more than 350 cases of missing people with dementia have been reported, with an average of eight cases per month, a spokesperson for the agency told CNA. 

Among the reported cases, about 40 were found at bus interchanges and MRT stations, according to the families of those who wandered off. 

Moreover, public transport facilities like bus interchanges and MRT stations are “community nodes which persons living with dementia would access as they go about their daily activities independently”, added AIC. 

These activities can include attending daycare centres or enjoying the activities they are used to, such as travelling to a supermarket or coffee shop, or meeting friends. 

“It is important that they are able to continue their daily living activities, so that they can access the care they need, as well as stay active and remain engaged, to slow down the progression of their dementia,” said AIC. 

SMRT and AIC also plan to roll out dementia-friendly “kindness seats” in train stations run by the transport operator.

The seats are wrapped in brightly coloured decals, making them “more visible” for seniors and people living with dementia, said SMRT.

It added that this could help them avoid falls or knocking against edges, as well as encourage commuters to show kindness to someone in need.

By June this year, a total of 45 SMRT train stations will feature the dementia-friendly themed "kindness seats".

With one in 10 seniors aged 60 and above projected to have dementia, and numbers expected to rise to 130,000 or more by 2030, “an inclusive community is important to help persons living with dementia to live well and age gracefully in their neighbourhood”, said AIC. 

As for Ms Wong, she said Ms Suriani did “a good job” in taking care of her father before she arrived at the station. 

“(She) made sure he’s safe, made sure he’s not cold. When (my family) reached the MRT station, he was wrapped up in a blanket. At the point of time when we saw him, (we had) peace of mind. He’s safe and sound. Nothing happened, no injury, nothing.”

Source: CNA/gy

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