For close to 40 years, Ben Ong lived in his suburban home in Damansara Utama, Petaling Jaya without interacting much with his neighbours. They share a smile or a quick word from time to time, but never a conversation.
But when his wife suffered a stroke last year, Ong reached out to his neighbours for help. His children were living far away and Ong found himself at a loss.
“I didn’t know what to do… where do I find reliable nursing care for her? What about her physiotherapy? I was really quite panicky,” recalls Ong, 66, a retired accountant.
It was his immediate neighbours, Datuk Koh Kia Lim, 68, and his wife, Dr Lim Ah Lan, 63, who supported Ong through the crisis.
“We’ve been neighbours for years. But I’d only spoken to Ben’s wife, never to him, even though we see him coming in and out of his house all the time. He is a very quiet man and keeps to himself.
“But when this happened, he reached out to us for help and we did our best,” says Dr Lim, a retired botanist from Universiti Malaya (UM).
Since then, Ong has come to value developing close ties with his neighbours. He now participates actively in his neighbourhood’s residents association.
He is also part of a pioneer community support group that’s being set up under the supervision of researchers from UM.
The Social Connect Group is a component of a study “Promoting Independence in Seniors with Arthritis (PISA)”, led by Universiti Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC) geriatrician Assoc Prof Dr Tan Maw Pin on how osteoarthritis affects the elderly.
The social arm of the study – forming social groups within communities – hopes to look at how communities can play a vital role in encouraging social participation among the elderly. This will ensure that they enjoy good health and quality of life as they age.
The social programme is led by senior lecturer from UM’s nursing department, Dr Chong Mei Chan and postdoctoral research fellow Dr Teoh Gaik Kin.
The community groups are not limited to seniors with osteoarthritis. In fact, they are not restricted to seniors. Ideally, says Dr Teoh, the social connect groups should comprise a mix of people from all ages who are living within the same community.
“Diversity is important. We don’t want to perpetuate the idea that elderly issues belong solely to the elderly or even that the younger generation is not interested in elderly care. This isn’t true. It takes a concerted effort to uplift the well-being of our seniors which will have a direct impact on uplifting our society too,” adds Dr Teoh.
Based on their needs, the UM team will guide communities in developing support networks to help the elderly. While families remain the primary caregivers for the elderly in Malaysia, the role of community cannot be downplayed.
The government has several community programmes for the elderly such as the the Pusat Activiti Warga Emas (Pawe) or day care centres around the country and a home help service where volunteer provide support services to the elderly. But there are less than 50 Pawes in the country for the 2.77 million Malaysians aged 60 and above.
Clearly, the existing support system cannot cope with the country’s ageing population – communities need to come together to support their elderly.
The UM research team identified three communities to work with in the Klang valley: SS20 (central) in Damansara Utama, Section 17 in Petaling Jaya and Taman Bukit Maluri in Kepong.
In the course of her research, Dr Teoh spent time with the residents of all three communities, taking part in their activities as well as conducting home visits all in a bid to understand the issues faced by the seniors within their communities.
“They are each so different … the make-up of the residents, their issues, and their needs are so unique which made us realise that we could not have just one module to suit all three. We needed to collaborate with the communities and come up with individual programmes that suit their specific needs,” says Dr Teoh.
The residents from SS20 were chosen as the pilot group mainly because they already had an active and well-established community network.
“There is synergy among many of the residents and, to some extent, they were already supporting each other within the community albeit on an individual and ad-hoc basis,” explains Dr Teoh.
To develop the community network further, the team from UM collaborated with the groups to identify areas in which they need help in order to develop stronger bonds with the community.
The SS20 community, explains Koh, is made up of largely of empty-nesters whose children have left the coop. The community came together a couple of years ago to fight crime. They collaborated with the police and even built a cabin for the patrolmen to meet with the community. The residents also hired security guards and put up cameras around the neighbourhood.
“These initiatives have worked. I think the community feels safer now and you can see children cycling around the streets late in the evenings and ladies going on walks at night because they feel protected,” says Koh, a retired pilot with the Malaysian Air Force.
Getting the community together, shares Koh who is also the deputy chairman of the SS20 residents association, took time.
“We realised the residents needed to get to know each other before we could expect them to work together. So, we organised potluck parties which actually worked. People came out of their homes, brought some food – nothing fancy, just good home-cooked food – and began to mingle,” says Koh.
Now the potluck parties have evolved to regular “coffee mornings” where residents mingle over light refreshments and listen to talks from invited speakers, mainly on issues pertaining to their health and well-being. There are also activities in the park – xiang gong, tai chi and line dancing – which are quite popular among the residents.
Even though they have successfully created a network, Dr Lim says there are still many residents whom they had not been able to reach out to.
“The residents who are joining our programmes are those who are already active. We need to be more inclusive and reach out to those who are not active … those who may feel reticent about joining the group activities. We need to know how to build a personal connection with this group but we don’t know how to approach them without seeming aggressive,” says Dr Lim.
A listening ear
Loneliness and isolation are among the most pressing issues for urban senior citizens, says Dr Teoh. This is especially so among those who live on their own or are house-bound.
Even in SS20, a relatively vibrant neighbourhood where most of the elderly are independent, the fear of being left alone is real.
“We don’t have exact statistics but most of the residents in the SS20 neighbourhood are retirees who either live with their spouse or on their own. For those living alone, their biggest fear is that no one will know if anything should happen to them. A few months ago, an elderly person living alone passed away but no one knew about it for three days. When I listen to some of the residents’ concerns, I realised I have no idea how to help,” shares Dr Lee.
Responding to their needs, the UM team have included empathetic listening skills and dealing with loss and grief as two of the skills that the residents will be trained in. Other topics include understanding the different stages of ageing so the residents will be able to recognise and understand the process of ageing and respond appropriately.
“Sometimes, all an elderly person needs is a person to talk to or someone who will listen to their concerns. If every one can be there for their neighbours, we are already doing something to help each other,” says Chiam Siew Keen, a retired teacher who is an active member of the community.
A group of 10 residents in SS20 will be participating in a six-week volunteer training programme After that, they will
in turn train other residents.
“We hope that if we have 50 residents trained, we will have the skills to handle crisis and include more people in our activities,” says Dr Lim.
The aim of the social programme, explains Dr Chong, is to imbibe the skills in a few community representative who will then carry the programme forward.
“We hope to leave the programme with the community, for them to run independently. They can invite their friends and family into the fold and hopefully include younger members of the community too,” explains Dr Chong who worked for many years as a community nurse in different parts of the country.
The SS20 group is also planning to set up a resource base for their community.
The idea was mooted, ironically, by Ong who realised after his ordeal last year that living in a cocoon without interacting with his neighbours was a no-go.
“There are many in the community who had gone through what I went through and have experiences to share, contacts (of caregiver support services) to give and who would have been willing to lend a hand during a crisis. But I didn’t know any of them then.
“If we can compile a list of resources for different situations, the moment someone needs help, we have the information at our fingertips. This will ease the burden of the person in crisis,” says Ong whose wife, thanks to the help of his community, is well into her recovery.
Talk on community support
An ageing society is our reality and families often find themselves unable to cope with juggling the demands of family, work and their duties as caregivers to their ageing parents.
While some senior citizens opt to live in nursing or retirement facilities where they have round-the-clock care and companionship, this isn’t a financially viable option for everyone. Some seniors would also rather stay in their own homes, even if it meant having little contact with others.
Communities can play a huge role in looking out for the elderly and making sure they remain active in the community.
Universiti Malaya geriatrician Assoc Prof Dr Tan Maw Pin will be speaking about how communities can play a role in ensuring the well-being of the elderly on Friday, Sept 2 from 8.30am to 11am at the SS20 (Damansara Utama) resident’s association cabin at Jalan SS20/14 in Petaling Jaya.
Dr Tan will speak about the formation of Social Connect Groups, a community support network made up of resident volunteers to engage and support seniors in the community. The Social Connect Groups are part of a Universiti Malaya study on Promoting Independence in Seniors with Arthritis (PISA).
Those attending the talk will be able to register themselves for free health screening. To register or for enquiries, email: firstname.lastname@example.org