Wander through a housing estate in Singapore, even in the midst of pandemic restriction measures, and chances are you would find groups of elderly residents mingling at void decks, pavilions, gardens and playgrounds. Loneliness is a feeling experienced by millions across the globe during lockdowns and social distancing initiatives. And while “loneliness levels were higher in young people, people who are unemployed, full time students and single parents” according to a UK mental health survey, the SMU Centre for Research on Successful Ageing (ROSA) found that the number of elderly residents who reported being satisfied with life dropped as the Covid-19 situation worsened in Singapore early last year.
ROSA's Singapore Life Panel, a monthly panel survey of older Singaporeans currently aged 55 to 74 as well as their spouses, covers a range of areas including the impact of the pandemic on economic outcomes, the health impact of Covid-19 and the social well-being of older adults amid a changed environment.
Established in July 2020 with a Ministry of Education Tier 3 social sciences research grant, as well as the support of The Ngee Ann Kongsi, ROSA’s research seeks to define and measure a holistic construct of well-being and to identify the factors that impact Singaporeans’ well-being as they progress through the later phases of life. Through close collaboration with government and other partner agencies, the group also aims to translate research insights into policy innovations that advance the well-being of older adults holistically and promote successful ageing in Singapore.
The pandemic is turning out to be a protracted event, as demonstrated by the multiple waves sweeping the globe. And while policies have largely, and rightly, been focused on containment of the virus and more broad-based measures for the welfare of the general population, it is critical to also investigate the impact of Covid-19 on the elderly, and how policy approaches can address their well-being in the new normal.
Here are three areas of intervention that the ROSA working paper, “The Psychosocial Well-being of Older Adults in Covid-19 and the ‘New Normal’”, identified for policymakers to assist older adults in this post-lockdown transitionary period.
Social isolation has been heightened during the pandemic, with the elderly being more vulnerable to the risks associated with chronic loneliness. It came as little surprise during the course of research by ROSA that individuals who lived alone, used fewer forms of communications technology, and participated in fewer in-person social activities “reported lower levels of life satisfaction and higher levels of felt social isolation during 2020”.
Significantly, living alone increases feelings of isolation, which in turn are correlated to reduced levels of life satisfaction. Interestingly, the paper found that “more frequent digital contact reduced social isolation by a larger extent than that of more frequent participation in social activities”. By educating older adults in the use of digital communication devices — such as through initiatives like the Seniors Go Digital Movement and Virtual Digital clinics launched in May 2020 — and engaging them in virtual interactions, this sense of loneliness can be mitigated.
Resilience is a powerful trait in overcoming difficult situations. In the case of the pandemic and its impact on the elderly, psychological resilience is critical in dealing with the flood of emotions during a time of unprecedented disruption.
The ROSA paper has also identified psychological resilience as an important step in safeguarding the mental health of seniors, and that policies to enhance the social support structure of older adults may be introduced to improve their ability to withstand challenging experiences. For example, community-based programmes that allow access to regular interactions even during social distancing restrictions can help develop this much-required sense of resilience.
While much has been done by the government in coping with the immense challenges faced by the general population, older adults — especially those who live alone — face specific problems that affect their well-being. Due to the unique nature of the impediments, the research found that solutions to improve well-being needs to be tailored to address such concerns.
For example, although digital communication may be a useful tool in helping some older adults living alone, it may not apply to other groups of vulnerable seniors who may require other forms of assistance. In fact, the Singapore Budget 2021 reflected a shift in policy “from containment to restructuring”, which includes a transition from “broad-based support to more targeted ones”.
But besides fiscal support to save jobs and support workers and livelihoods, policies to provide social and emotional support to older adults have also been implemented. For example, the Silver Generation Office (SGO) — which reaches out to new groups of seniors aged 65 and above, local grassroots organisations, social service agencies and senior activity centres have been engaging seniors living alone or who are at risk of social isolation, “to provide companionship and encourage them to participate in social activities”.
A new eldercare centre service model has also been introduced in May 2021, with eldercare centres serving as touchpoints to engage with seniors. In addition, an around-the-clock social support hotline for seniors has been introduced, which provides tele-befriending services as well as emergency response to seniors in distress.