Growing Wiser with Age: Community Involvement with Rachel Tan

By the SMU Social Media Team

It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon, and SMU School of Social Sciences sophomore, Rachel Tan is happily chatting with a genial old woman with a toothless grin at her home in Jalan Besar. This is a typical Saturday afternoon for Rachel. “As we visit nearly twenty homes a week, we spend at least a couple of minutes with each elderly to know how they are keeping up,” she explains of the Lion Befrienders, a student-led initiative whereby youths would visit elderly homes to chat with the seniors and provide moral support.

Volunteers are attached to a Befriender Executive based on their preference of location and language capabilities. They visit up to twenty homes a week, spending at least a couple of minutes with each elderly to know how they are keeping up. “Just a mere two hours a week could put a smile on the faces of the elderly and that is truly a worthy deal,” she quipped, sharing also of an elderly lady who always offered to cook for the volunteers whenever they come by.


Rachel Tan and Timothy Huang visiting an elderly couple

Rachel and Timothy on one of their visiting sessions


While it may be all smiles with many of these elderly, the project does not come without challenges. “Sometimes when a language barrier is intimidating, they could consider roping a friend in—perhaps someone who is complementary to them in terms of language,” explains Rachel, echoing the problems in communication that many youths face in trying to connect with senior citizens around them. “For example, Timothy (a fellow SMU social sciences sophomore) speaks good Mandarin and is able to converse in Hokkien, but I try my best with Mandarin and am able to understand and converse in Cantonese. We help each other translate what the elders are telling us and there you go—the language barrier is overcome.”

She also helpfully shared the following tips for youths looking to relate to seniors at home and around them:

1. Be a good listener; encourage them to share their stories so they can establish a closer connection with you.

2. Some praise is quite healthy! We tell our elderly that they look young, or just make some jokes asking them to perform a short dance for us. Injecting these into conversations can make one more personable.

3. Sometimes seniors can get overly agitated regarding issues. Maintain a neutral stance and let them “clear their system”.

4. Do not be too quick to jump to judgments. There are times when seniors behave in a manner that is out of the ordinary, but take a step back and try to understand the bigger picture. Be more understanding of the types of difficulties that they may be facing at that age.

Throughout her time with the Lion Befrienders, it is not surprising that Rachel has met her fair share of different personalities of elderly—from jovial encounters to seniors who are just whiling the time away, and even those who come off as depressed. Yet, she believes that while she is there to provide comfort for them, there is always valuable insight to glean from each encounter. “The elders come with an inventory of wisdom that you cannot find elsewhere,” she says.

“Once, we went through the gates of an elderly woman’s home thrice because she kept bringing us in as we bid goodbye,” she related. The team were also enamoured when they met an equally upbeat old man, who constantly sings praises of the generosity of the volunteers. “He meets his friends, goes to the Senior Activity Centre and leads a very fulfilling life in general,” she quipped, “he has inspired me to be more appreciative of the little fortunes we have.”

And more appreciative indeed she has grown, sharing on how being a Befriender has made her realise she is more fortunate than she thinks, and that the smiles of the silver generation at the end of the day was what pushed her forward in this journey. She hopes to spearhead similar movements in creating improved elderly care in Singapore in the future.

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