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A Hotline for Lonely Seniors

A Hotline for Lonely Seniors

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The number of seniors living alone or with little family support is growing as the size of family units shrink and Singapore’s population ages. Some have found comfort in the form of a telecare service supported by Temasek Foundation.

About 15 years ago, Mr Patrick Raeburn found himself all alone when his mother passed away from old age.

The former prison officer, who is single, was living with his mother and a domestic helper who had helped to care for her. His father had died 23 years before.

“She was my closest friend. We spent most of our time together. When she passed away, I felt I had no one to talk to,” said the 72-year-old.

The loneliness was overwhelming. He found himself staring at the walls of his two-room flat in Marine Parade, which he moved into shortly after his mother died. Apart from meeting his siblings once a month, Mr Raeburn spent most days by himself. Depression gradually set in.

I thought of hanging myself in my room. I just felt so alone. 

Mr Patrick Raeburn, a beneficiary of CareLine 

By 2050, the number of people aged 60 years and above globally will reach nearly 2.1 billion.

A Call for Help — Anytime, Anywhere

Things took a brighter turn in 2017, when Mr Raeburn was introduced by social workers to CareLine, a 24-hour telephone befriender service for the elderly. Seniors who have registered for CareLine can call for help; for instance if they fall ill, or simply if they’re looking for someone to talk to.

“We chit-chat about how I spend my day. If I am admitted to the hospital, I will also call to inform them. They are like my siblings,” said Mr Raeburn.

CareLine staff also make it a point to call him on his birthday and Christmas, he said with a tinge of pride.

Launched by Changi General Hospital in 2016, CareLine provides a listening ear to the growing number of seniors who lack family support. According to the Department of Statistics Singapore, the number of elderly people in Singapore spending their twilight years alone will almost double from 47,000 in 2016 to 83,000 in 2030. Research has shown that these seniors are prone to depression and suicide.

To make the telecare service more accessible to Singapore’s elderly population, in 2017, Temasek Foundation stepped in to provide vulnerable seniors with smartphones installed with the CareLine app. About 120 smartphones have been distributed to date via this pilot programme, and some 1,000 of these seniors would have received the devices by the end of the year.

CareLine staff make it a point to call Mr Raeburn on his birthday and Christmas. 

“Seniors who live alone might face emergencies like a fall or illness, and they may not know who to call to ask for help,” said Ms Fatima Mustafa, Director of Programmes, Temasek Foundation.

“The idea here is to ensure that these seniors are able to call in anytime, on issues that they may face. Changi General Hospital will be able to refer them to the appropriate services; or get the appropriate services into their homes in a timely manner,” she added.

With the smartphones, the seniors are just a click away from being connected to CareLine through the app.

Besides providing one-touch access to social support via the befriender telecare service, the smartphones help to ensure that the elderly stay safe. When the GPS function is enabled, for example, the devices allow CareLine staff to locate the seniors and render medical assistance when needed.

Phone Pals

Mr Raeburn said the smartphone is easy to use. He opens the in-built app to reach the telecare service regularly. Each call lasts just a few minutes, but they are the highlights of his day.

“All the staff from CareLine are very friendly. They respect me and call me Uncle Patrick. It makes me happy,” he said.

The telecare service is staffed by a team of call centre agents who take a total of about 100 calls every day. Currently, there are about 3,600 seniors who use the service.

CareLine staff point out that loneliness is not restricted to elderly who live alone. Some older people feel emotionally abandoned because they are not close to their family members, even though they may live together.

We hope that this pilot will pave the way for a new holistic care model that will support seniors who have little or no caregiver support in the community. 

Ms Fatima Mustafa, Director of Programmes, Temasek Foundation 

“What is sadder is that there are those who have families, but still feel alone,” said Ms Jaqleen Wee, a Client Services Associate Executive at CareLine. The call centre agent, who speaks English and Malay, admitted that the work can take an emotional toll sometimes, but the team is supported and well trained.

Regular users of the service that Temasek Digital spoke with said they look forward to chatting with CareLine staff.

Mr Cheng Sam Hock, 71, who lives with his domestic helper, said he used to call the telecare service several times a day — even up to seven times on some occasions. Due to his visual impairment, he does not like leaving his home, and hardly has any visitors other than his son, who visits him once a month.

“Sometimes, I will call in the evening and chat until around 8pm, and then I go to bed. It is nice to be able to joke and chat with someone,” he said.

“We hope that this pilot will pave the way for a new holistic care model that will support seniors who have little or no caregiver support in the community,” added Ms Fatima.

“This would go a long way in supporting our seniors to age well and live in place.”

 

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