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Chicken rice for the soul: The volunteers giving nursing home seniors a rare chance to eat out

Chicken rice for the soul: The volunteers giving nursing home seniors a rare chance to eat out

Mdm Phang Sow Yum poses for a photo during a Jiak Simi Project outing. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

SINGAPORE: It is the weekend.

And while others might be content enjoying their off-days in the comfort of air-conditioned shopping centres, Mdm Tan Lian Hua is having the time of her life on a sweltering Saturday afternoon at a hawker centre.

The 76-year-old's memory is foggy - she can't always remember the names of people, places and dates.

But when she sees the plate on the table before her, her eyes light up in recognition. 

It's chicken rice - her favourite.

A resident of Thong Teck Home for Senior Citizens, Mdm Tan is unable to leave the home on her own to enjoy her favourite meals.

But with the help of a group of volunteers from the Jiak Simi (hokkien for 'What are we eating?') project, she can.

Mdm Tan Lian Hua savours a spoonful of chicken rice. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

Founded by volunteer Owen Tan in 2016, Jiak Simi aims to bring seniors to food places which they would otherwise not be able to visit on their own.

"I started as a food technologist so I worked to develop food for older adults with swallowing difficulties," 29-year-old Mr Tan told CNA. "So when I was doing this, I thought: For those uncles and aunties who still can eat, why don’t they have the right to choose the food they want? So I decided - why don't I form a small group with my friends and we can bring a small group of aunties and uncles to go hawker centres to eat?"

The ability to choose one's food is a basic right, suggested Mr Tan, and he wanted to return that back to the seniors.

"Being able to choose what you eat is a right, but in a nursing home ... you lose the dignity to choose the food that you like," he explained.  "If one day I told you that you can no longer choose the food that you like, how would you feel?"

A member of Youth Corps Singapore, Mr Tan had already been volunteering at the home prior to the setting up of the project.

"Normally we would go there to organize Christmas parties, Chinese New Year parties or birthday parties," he recalled. "I had already developed a strong relationship with the home ... So I thought why don’t I open this idea to them - and they were quite open to it."

As part of Youth Corps Leaders Programme, Mr Tan was given S$2,000 under the Pay It Forward award to kickstart the project.  He recruited others through the Youth Corp portal, as well as neighbours, polytechnic friends, university friends and working colleagues.

Caregivers help Mr Nani Ahmad cut up his briyani. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

Today, the group has over 50 volunteers, with outings held once every two months.

The group is now self-sustaining. They make use of their own money to charter buses to bring the seniors on outings, and pay for the lunches of the accompanying caregivers.

"Youth Corps has featured us before so some of the public have gotten to know us and are aware of us, they don't mind contributing money for the buses," said Mr Tan.  "For the food, we encourage the volunteers themselves to treat the residents.

"Normally the caregivers eat in the home, so if we want them to go out with the volunteers and us, we have to pay for their lunch. They skip their lunch in the home to join us, so its good for us to ask them to eat lunch together, but we'll pay for them.

"The most important thing is that the home is very supportive – this home is currently providing one caregiver to one resident (on outings) hence if we don’t really get the numbers from the volunteer side, we still can go ahead. Sometimes if the volunteers are busy, if we get eight to 10, we will still proceed."

From Maxwell Hawker Centre to Jewel Changi Airport,  Chinatown Complex Food Centre to Changi Village Hawker Centre, the seniors have seen their share - and eaten their share.

"We should thank them very much for this," said 92-year-old Lee Kim Cheng, who estimates that he has been on three different outings. "They are so young and doing volunteer work, we should appreciate them because not all young people would volunteer to do this.

"We are at the home all the time and when there’s somebody to bring you to a new place, you should be thankful."

Seniors are not just brought out for a meal, the Jiak Simi Project volunteers also bring them for walks at places such as at Changi. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

Mr Tan is also keen to point out that the seemingly small action of paying for these seniors' meals goes a long way.

"A plate of chicken rice that costs three dollars can bring so many smiles to the aunties and uncles," he explained. "Some might say that the people we bring out are only a few but ... you don’t have to help many people. 

"If you can help one, then help one. If you can help a few, just help a few."

“As we celebrate Youth Corps Singapore’s fifth anniversary this year, I am heartened to see youths like Owen continue to give back to society and engage with the senior citizens," chairman for Youth Corps Singapore's advisory committee Amrin Amin told CNA.

"Through my interactions with Owen, you can see his passion for volunteerism shining through. We need more youths like him to reach out to the rest of Singapore to make volunteerism a way of life."

Mdm Tan Lian Hua shares a laugh with volunteers. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

And with meals at the home being vegetarian only, there is added reason for the seniors' cheer when they get to go on outings.

"I like eating meat, but they don’t serve meat," said Mdm Tan with a laugh. "Any kind of meat will do. Today’s the first day I've eaten meat this year.

"I liked everything about today's outing but if I had to choose something I liked the best, it would be the chicken rice. Our stroll to the beach is not going to make me full you know?"

But it is not just all about the food - the company of the volunteers remains something the seniors hold very dear.

"Every time I see them walk through the door, I know it’s a chance to go out. With them here, I’m happy," added Mdm Tan. 

"They have good hearts. When I come back and go back to my room, I will feel a bit sad and wonder: 'When will be the next time we go out again?'" 

Source: CNA/mt


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