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Hello interaction, goodbye isolation

Help seniors stay connected during the coronavirus outbreak so that they remain active and healthy

Anjali Raguraman on 16 Mar 2020

The Straits Times


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For 73-year-old former baker Ong Hoo June, weekdays usually involve going to the Lions Befrienders Senior Activity Centre in Queenstown for exercise and activities like bingo, where she enjoys the "thrill of winning prizes" and the free biscuits and snacks.


So the two-week suspension of all social activities by government agencies for seniors from March 11 is already getting to her.


This was after an increasing number of coronavirus infections was linked to a Chinese New Year dinner at Safra Jurong attended by many senior citizens. It is now the largest cluster in Singapore with 45 cases as at press time.


Madam Ong has no children and lives alone. "I'm going to die of boredom. I have to spend more money buying food now," she says, eagerly anticipating the day she can get back to her games.


Seniors are a particularly vulnerable group when it comes to the coronavirus.


With current projections suggesting that the fight against it will be a long one, experts say the suspension of social activities for seniors leaves them at higher risk of increased social isolation and loneliness.


The two-week suspension affects some 290,000 participants of programmes, many of which are run by the People's Association. These include courses and activities in music, dance and exercise, which can be crucial in keeping older folk happy and healthy.


"For older adults to maintain wellness, you need a combination of physical, psychological and social interactions," says senior consultant geriatrician Chong Mei Sian, who runs The Geriatric Practice at Mount Elizabeth Novena Specialist Centre.


She has noticed a small percentage of patients who "have experienced a little bit more social withdrawal and some declines as the result of a lack of stimulation, especially those with memory-related problems, whose mood is not as good".


"Compared with a 30-year-old in isolation, who can easily tap on his phone and connect to the Internet, some of the seniors connect better by face-to-face and group activities," adds Dr Chong.


Dr Lynnette Tan, senior consultant in the psychiatry department at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), notes that "many studies have indicated that social isolation (over a prolonged period) has been associated with poor health, such as increased risk of heart disease, strokes, arthritis, depression and even mortality rates in older adults".


Adding to the anxiety surrounding the spread of the virus is the nature of the disease.


Dr Megan Chan, a consultant at TTSH's psychiatry department, says: "With social media and news emphasising the higher mortality rates and poorer outcome in the older people infected with Covid-19, it is inevitable that this can also create fear and panic in this vulnerable group.


"In some older people who may not be socially active, there may also be a lack of clear understanding about the virus, which can lead to unfounded anxiety."


Socialisation is important for seniors, with social activity slowing cognitive and physical decline.


Dr Annabelle Chow, principal clinical psychologist at her own practice, Annabelle Psychology, says: "Retirees who had more social interaction and engagement through some form of work involvement or volunteering reported better cognitive performance, fewer depressive symptoms and overall better mental health and life satisfaction compared with those who did not.


"Other studies have also found that socialisation was associated with a delay in memory loss and cognitive impairment and reduced the risk of dementia."


Hence, she emphasises the need to "keep an eye out for seniors, especially given that no one can accurately predict how Covid-19 will continue to impact us".


While it may not be possible for seniors to socialise the same way as before, with social distancing measures encouraged and the suspension of activities for seniors, Dr Chow says family and friends can step up. They can increase the number of engagements - such as phone or video calls, visits or small-group activities - with their senior family members or friends.


She says: "This form of social interaction will go a long way in assuring our seniors they are still cared for, and they can reach out for emotional or other support during their time of need, and will help to prevent and reduce negative feelings and thoughts that might arise from loneliness or isolation. If the feelings of isolation or loneliness persist, it is advisable to seek help from a mental-health professional."




Even if seniors are physically isolated as a result of the coronavirus situation and suspension of social activities, Dr Lynnette Tan, senior consultant of psychiatry at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, says they can still do many things to help themselves stay positive and healthy.


She adds: "We might have to accept the current changes as part of life, but it is important to keep things in perspective that such measures are precautionary and are not meant to be permanent."


Dr Annabelle Chow, who runs her own practice Annabelle Psychology, says: "The gap created by the suspension of activities should be positively framed as an opportunity to try new activities or crafts such as baking, gardening or other individual activities the person has always wanted to try."


She adds that "seniors should also be encouraged to maintain the non-affected portions of their daily routine".


Here are their tips for seniors in isolation:


• Keep a positive attitude.


• Take care of yourself by eating healthy meals.


• Go for walks or exercise by yourself in place of group activities.


• Have adequate sleep.


•Take care of plants or pets.


• Continue your interests and hobbies in new and creative ways, in place of group activities.


• Learn new skills such as using the computer to keep in touch with your friends and family.


• Stay connected with friends and family through the telephone, video calls and social media.


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



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