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Seniors find new spring in their step

Jurong residents in study bond over talks, exercise programmes and, of course, food

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Chang Ai-Lien on 26 Jan 2014

Singapore Press Holdings Ltd

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Retired waste disposal supervisor Ng Eng Yam has felt much happier ever since he started joining his fellow seniors at Jurong Point for lunch, talks and tai chi last year.


“The various talks prompted me to go online to find out more, and made my mind lively,” said the 68-year-old. “And getting together like this really makes us feel wanted.” His friends, retired legal clerk Han Siew Juan, 80, and part-time sales promoter Susan Tan, 69, agree enthusiastically.


Ms Han told The Sunday Times: “Coming to meet old friends over a buffet lunch and singing songs together, of course it makes us happier.”


Such weekly meetings seem to stave off depression in the elderly, and could hopefully keep dementia at bay too, researchers say.


The trio are part of an ongoing 10-year study of 600 elderly people living in Jurong which, if successful, could be a template for other projects around the island, as Singapore looks at ways to cope with its rapidly ageing population.


“By intervening in cases where people may have mild symptoms of depression, we can stop it from happening,” said Professor Kua Ee Heok, senior consultant at the National University Hospital’s Department of Psychological Medicine, who is leading the effort.


Results of the project, funded and supported by the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple and developer and construction company Lee Kim Tah Holdings, have been promising so far.


Participants in the Jurong Ageing Study were significantly happier within as little as three months. By the six-month mark, their depression and anxiety test scores were back to the normal range, added Prof Kua.


In fact, the participants were enjoying being part of the project so much that virtually none pulled out – which is unusual for such studies, he noted.


The work could not be more timely.


Singapore is home to the region’s fastest ageing population, and about one in five people will be 65 or older by 2030.


There are about 30,000 people aged 60 and above with dementia – a brain disorder which affects the memory, intellect and personality.


The number is expected to soar to 80,000 by 2030.


About 7.5 per cent of the elderly are depressed. They suffer from poor quality of life, are at higher risk of suicide, and place a higher strain on the health-care system and the hospital bed crunch.


“Everyone is interested in non-drug interventions to prevent depression and dementia, and to help the elderly and their families live happier, less stressful lives,” said Prof Kua.


While the results for dementia will take a little longer, he hopes they will be equally positive.


“People think that dementia is a terminal illness, but that’s not so,” he said. “We may not have the cure, but there are many things that can be done to slow it down.”


This is the first time that such a comprehensive study to prevent and alleviate symptoms of depression and dementia in the elderly is taking place in Asia, as earlier work focused on how many people suffer from it.


The Jurong residents in the study went through comprehensive interviews, physical examinations and blood tests before being selected for the meetings – once a week to start with. The frequency was reduced later.


Each meeting began with a 20-minute talk on how to cope with health issues such as diabetes and high blood pressure through medicine, diet and exercise.


Participants also enjoyed art therapy, music and tai-chi exercises, as well as mindfulness practice, which involves meditation.


The results of the programme, which started in March last year, are apparent to former Nominated MP Laurence Wee, executive director of the Presbyterian Community Service, whose members help run the project.


The programme has given participants a sense of direction and fulfilment, he said. “Many older people tend not to have activities to fill their time, and some feel worthless despite their earlier contributions to society.


“I noticed that at the beginning, they were quiet and seemed insecure. Now they’ve changed. They’re so chatty and lively, they’ve bonded and have a sense of belonging, and their self-esteem has increased.”


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

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