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‘Mental health is everyone’s business’: How society can better protect seniors’ mental wellbeing

‘Mental health is everyone’s business’: How society can better protect seniors’ mental wellbeing

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

SINGAPORE: Amid a rapidly ageing society, the entire community – down to the individual – has a role to play in caring for the mental wellbeing of seniors, said organisations serving the elderly.

Efforts that must be undertaken include looking out for vulnerable seniors, strengthening partnerships between care providers and helping the elderly become more resilient, they said.

The mental health of seniors is in the spotlight amid a report by suicide prevention organisation Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) that stated elderly suicides hit a nearly two-decade high in the country last year.

READ: Suicide cases in Singapore highest in 8 years amid COVID-19 pandemic

Out of the 452 suicides reported in Singapore in 2020, 154 were among people aged 60 and above – the highest recorded figure since 1991.

This also marked a 26 per cent increase from the year before, according to SOS.

"COVID-19 has severely affected the nation's economy, lifestyle and mental health. We are extremely worried about how our elderly are coping during this public health crisis," said SOS chief executive Gasper Tan when the data was released on Thursday.

Apart from social isolation, the difficulty in constantly adapting to changes was also a key issue among this group.

"IT’S EVERYBODY’S BUSINESS"

Moving forward, to better care for seniors’ wellbeing, every member of society has a role to play, said Ms Porsche Poh, the executive director of Silver Ribbon (Singapore).

“Some will say it’s the Government’s responsibility, it’s the charity’s responsibility. But mental health is everyone’s business … Everyone has a role to play in promoting a caring society.”

She noted that while social service agencies implement programmes to engage the elderly, grassroots organisations and individuals can also reach out to involve those in their circles.

One can simply start by paying attention to the elderly in their families, she said.

“We’ve really heard of elderly saying they’re very lonely … For the elderly with children, the kids could spend some time just by having a meal with them ... Educate them, speak to them (about mental health),” said Ms Poh.

She added: “Show your concern and keep a look out for your neighbours too … Just say: ‘Hello, how are you? Are you okay?’”

READ: Better mental health awareness among seniors, but more can be done, say experts

Ms Joyz Tan, a senior social worker at Fei Yue Community Services, echoed the importance of interactions within the community.

"We really hope that the elderly will find that the environment that they stay in is a pleasant one - (where there's a face that they're familiar with) that will say hello to them.

“When we have such a vibrant community of people who can still make friends, I think that will really build up a sense of positivity in their lives.”

At an organisational level, institutions serving the elderly – such as hospitals and social service agencies – should also partner up because a single agency cannot do everything, said Ms Wang Jing, assistant director of Hua Mei Counselling and Coaching at Tsao Foundation.

“When we have discussions, we can talk about the observations we have, what kind of care plan we can come up with and who can do which part - the monitoring, the psychosocial intervention.

“That is a very helpful strategy … It is so important that we share the same direction, understand the needs of the client and come up with a more holistic care plan together,” she said.

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

From an operational perspective, the recent relaxation of COVID-19 safe management measures is also an essential move for protecting seniors’ wellbeing, said Ms Poh.

This is because face-to-face meetings, which provide a human touch, are critical for seniors who feel isolated, she said.

Ms Poh also noted that many prefer in-person meetings as they are not digitally savvy, hence making door-to-door visits all the more important.

These must be kept up, she said, stressing that one must not assume all seniors can catch up with technology, even if there are growing efforts to help them go online.

“We should know that the elderly can be quite stubborn. You can have all the courses to educate them, but (some are) not ready or do not believe in it.”

Ms Wang stressed that this is unfamiliar territory for many seniors, who may lack the confidence to try new things.

"It's not so easy for the elderly to step out of their comfort zone ... (We can) be more patient, be more encouraging, help them to learn."

READ: Understanding suicide: Debunking myths and knowing what you can do

But it is also important to empower the elderly with more confidence and skills to cope with change, she said.

So far, the disruptions caused by COVID-19 may have led to fear, anxiety and a sense of helplessness among seniors, and teaching them to examine these could make them more resilient, Ms Wang said.

“What’s behind these emotions? I think a lot of times it's the yearning for safety and a sense of control.

“So then, we need to help them see … How are we able to learn from these feelings? How are we able to provide some comfort and (soothe) ourselves? And how can they accept that this change could be the new normal?

“That's the important part for them to really feel more confident and can take back control in a way,” said Ms Wang.

“We do have the ability to make choices to adapt to changes. I think we need to help them to build their confidence,” she said.

She also said that helping the elderly tap on these “internal resources” is just as important as giving them external resources.

Where to get help:

Samaritans of Singapore Hotline: 1800 221 4444

Institute of Mental Health’s Helpline: 6389 2222

Singapore Association of Mental Health Helpline: 1800 283 7019

You can also find a list of international helplines here. If someone you know is at immediate risk, call 24-hour emergency medical services.

Source: CNA/cl(hs)

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