SINGAPORE: As Singapore's population ages, the Ministry of Health (MOH) aims to almost double the number of eldercare centres to 220 by 2025 and increase their scope of services.
Eldercare centres serve as the go-to points for all seniors, providing a range of services such as active ageing programmes, befriending, as well as referral and care services.
"It is the largest ground community asset of MOH," said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung on Monday (Jun 13), noting that there are currently 119 eldercare centres.
Speaking at the Agency for Integrated Care’s (AIC) Community Care Work Plan seminar, Mr Ong said that eventually, each eldercare centre should be responsible for 1,000 to 4,000 seniors.
They should also work with community networks such as grassroots, social service offices and general practitioners to address health and social needs, he added.
"In addition, we will increase the scope of services in eldercare centres," said Mr Ong.
"For instance, seniors today may visit their GPs and polyclinics once every few months for their chronic conditions. In between these visits, seniors can visit the eldercare centres to engage in health-related activities or enrol in active ageing programmes.
"In time, we would like eldercare centres to help seniors monitor their vitals, do simple health screenings and link up with other service and healthcare providers."
Noting the challenges of an ageing population, Mr Ong said that between 2010 and 2020, the number of nursing home beds increased by 70 per cent from about 9,600 to 16,200.
In the next 10 years, authorities plan to increase capacity by close to another 100 per cent to more than 31,000 beds.
As such, Mr Ong said it is important to expand both the scale and scope of services at eldercare centres to support ageing in place, in communities and in people's own homes.
“It is not a panacea, but will help anchor and support care in the community,” he added.
VACCINATING THE ELDERLY
The Health Minister noted that the community care sector "bore disproportionate responsibility" during the COVID-19 pandemic as the coronavirus affects seniors the most.
Singapore has protected its elderly through vaccinations and good infection control measures, said Mr Ong, noting that MOH has rolled out COVID-19 jabs to more than 90 per cent of eligible nursing home residents and senior care clients, as well as more than 10,000 home care residents.
“The pandemic is however not over. We must expect and deal with new infection waves, new variants of concern, or even a new pandemic,” said Mr Ong.
He previously said that Singapore could expect a new Omicron wave “possibly emerging” in July or August, as COVID-19 antibodies start to wane.
"But infection numbers matter much less than the number of people who fall severely ill and need to be hospitalised," he said on Monday. "So long as we can protect our hospital capacity, we will be able to ride through a new infection wave smoothly, without imposing any significant social restrictions."
Mr Ong said it is important that the elderly get their booster shots.
"Although we gain fully vaccinated status after two shots of mRNA vaccine, against the Omicron variant, we, and especially the seniors amongst us, need three shots of mRNA vaccine," he added.
Presenting figures, Mr Ong said that for those above 60 years old who have not received their primary series of vaccination, the incidence of severe illness and death after being infected with Omicron is almost close to four in 100.
"For those not boosted nine months after their primary series, the incidence rate is one in 100. For those boosted, the incidence rate drops to three in 1,000," he added.
"Omicron is therefore a dangerous disease for seniors who are not fully vaccinated and boosted. In the next one month, we need to work hard to get all our seniors boosted with a third shot."
MANPOWER IN ELDERCARE SECTOR
A "major concern" for community care providers is manpower constraints, said Mr Ong as he laid out measures to retain and attract good employees, including salary competitiveness.
About S$290 million has been committed to raising the salaries of employees in community care organisations from 2020 to 2023, he noted.
MOH and AIC will continue to invest in the skills development of the sector's workforce. Mr Ong said AIC's learning institutes have scaled up their offerings, with more than 18,000 training places annually.
Authorities are also working on transforming existing roles through job redesign for non-clinical manpower and digitalisation. For instance, a community care digital transformation plan will help remove repetitive and administrative tasks, he said.
Besides raising salaries and digitalisation, Mr Ong said Singapore still needs foreign healthcare manpower.
"I am a big believer in using technology and digital health to improve preventive care, but community care is inherently a very high touch sector. There is a limit to replacing physical manpower with technology and digital solutions," he said.