Community initiatives are crucial in addressing the looming issues of population ageing, says Universiti Malaya Medical Centre consultant geriatrician Prof Dr Tan Maw Pin. “We cannot just bank on the government to come up with solutions to address these issues,” she says.
“Let’s be honest, we cannot rely on the government to fund all these programmes for our seniors and we don’t have the financial means to deal with the consequences of loneliness in older people. So let’s not waste any more time and deal with this ourselves.
“Communities need to come together and act. We need to empower our seniors to develop their own solutions. They need to call the shots.”
As part of their study, “Promoting Independence in Seniors with Arthritis (PISA)”, Tan and her peers – Dr Teoh Gaik Kin, a Fellow in Community Engagement and lecture at the International Medical University, and UM nursing department senior lecturer Dr Chong Mei Chan – have been working with community-dwelling senior citizens to figure out how communities can play a vital role in encouraging social participation among their elderly.
For two years, the trio worked with five urban-dwelling senior communities, including a group of senior citizens from the Subang Jaya Buddhist Association as well as one from SS20 in Petaling Jaya, in trying to come up with a successful model to increase social participation among the elderly within their communities.
Although there were some stumbling blocks in the earlier stages of their research, Teoh and her colleagues learnt valuable lessons about developing community programmes that work: collaboration is key.
“One very important lesson that we learnt was there is no one-size-fits-all solution. We cannot impose programmes on communities to encourage social participation among the elderly,” says Prof Tan.
“We cannot prescribe what they should be doing because these are independent-minded people who have years of experiences; they are professionals with very clear and strong opinions about what they want to do and how they want to do it.”
Past programmes, they report, have typically been very top-down, which is why many have fizzled out. Programmes cannot be homogeneous because communities are not homogeneous, explains Teoh.
“Every community is different. We learnt this by being on the ground, meeting and listening to the different communities,” asserts Teoh, who has spent the better part of the past two years engaging with different communities of seniors in and around the Klang Valley.
“Therefore, programmes for every community must cater to the particular needs of its dwellers – what they need and want. Also, for any community-led initiative to work, the community needs to take the lead, not us. We are just facilitators. We cannot dominate or impose our ideas. It won’t work.
“We need to restrain ourselves from telling the seniors what they should be doing. We must be respectful and genuinely engage with them and work towards the common goal of empowering our seniors.”
It may have taken some trial and error but their community collaborations have yielded some very positive results. Both the SS20 and SJBA seniors now have their own senior citizens groups and they both are bustling with activities that keep their seniors active and connected. From hiking to dancing to sports, these seniors have each other for company and support.
Based on their work, Teoh, Prof Tan and Chong have published A Practical Guide To Promoting Social Participation In Seniors: A Community-Based Approach, a framework to inform future programmes aimed at seniors.
“We don’t want to keep re-inventing the wheel. Why repeat mistakes that have been made, over and over again?” says Prof Tan, adding that she hopes for other researchers to build upon and even improve on their findings.
“This guide hopes to help other researchers, government agencies or civil society groups who are keen on working with seniors. It highlights issues that may arise when working with senior citizen communities as well as the mistakes to avoid, based on our research and experience.
“We hope that other researchers can build on where we’ve left off. We are an ageing community and there is an urgency to rapidly develop solutions to population ageing.”
They also hope that other senior communities will be inspired to go the way of the two models they worked with.