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Noting rise in attempted suicide cases, Lions Befrienders partners DBS to offer virtual support for seniors-at-risk

SINGAPORE — More seniors have tried to take their own lives, with four cases of attempted suicide reported in the eight weeks of the circuit breaker in April and May, when the population was under stay-home restrictions and non-essential activities were halted.

Elders get to chat and do online activities with DBS bank volunteers through video calls at senior activity centres run by Lions Befrienders.

Elders get to chat and do online activities with DBS bank volunteers through video calls at senior activity centres run by Lions Befrienders.

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SINGAPORE — More seniors have tried to take their own lives, with four cases of attempted suicide reported in the eight weeks of the circuit breaker in April and May, when the population was under stay-home restrictions and non-essential activities were halted.

It used to be one reported case on average in three to six months, Lions Befrienders said.

The social service agency that serves underprivileged and at-risk seniors contacts 6,000 of its beneficiaries twice a week to check on their well-being.

It also found that more of them were grappling with anxiety and emotional issues during the circuit breaker. 

This was because of the drop in social-connectedness due to self-isolation, the agency said. 

“The elderly always need social connection, but they need it now more than ever, especially those living on their own,” it said.

Before the circuit breaker, which began on April 7, seniors would go to the activity centres run by Lions Befrienders up to five times a week or have volunteers and staff members from the agency visiting them. 

To help ease loneliness among seniors and abide by restrictions to prevent overcrowding, Lions Befrienders is collaborating with DBS bank on a virtual “befriending” initiative in July and August.

Known as the LB Virtual Befriending@SAC, the programme matches 1,000 DBS employees with 1,000 seniors to have online chat or activity sessions.  

The elders will visit the senior activity centres where they will be connected to DBS volunteers for an hour-long video call and do some online activities, which will be manned by staff members at the centre.

They may chat, have a sing-along session, play cognitive games online or do simple home gardening with pot and soil where the DBS volunteer will give instructions and the centre’s staff members will facilitate it.

The bank will be donating 40 digital tablets to help Lions Befrienders facilitate the video calls through applications such as Zoom and Webex.

Since 2015, more than 3,600 DBS volunteers have put in more than 17,000 hours to reach out to 3,000 seniors through activities such as doing grocery shopping with them and playing board games with them at activity centres

Mr Shee Tse Koon, country head of DBS Singapore, said that this joint initiative can help to protect both seniors and volunteers from Covid-19 since it minimises physical contact.

He added that virtual volunteerism can be viewed as a long-term solution that can catalyse greater societal awareness around at-risk seniors and action among fellow Singaporeans.

“With Singapore being one of the fastest ageing populations in the world, we recognise that it is our shared responsibility to help tackle social isolation among the elderly, which can result in more serious health and mental health consequences,” he said. 

Last month, TODAY reported that many elders were disconnected from the digital world and were struggling to pass time after the circuit breaker began. 

A beneficiary of Lions Befrienders, Madam Khatijah Bee Ameer Khan, 65, a retiree who lives with her husband, said that she struggled to keep herself occupied during the circuit breaker. 

Speaking to TODAY through a translator, she said: “I felt lonely and very stressed at home. In the past two months, I played games and did some colouring at home but there’s nothing else to do.”

After her first virtual interaction with a DBS volunteer, she said that she found the session “enjoyable”. 

She chatted and played online games such as tic-tac-toe and spot-the-difference with the volunteer, who also asked her how she was feeling.

Madam Khatijah told the volunteer about her fears in having to undergo a cataract operation. “I felt better after talking about it,” she said.

Madam Ng Soh Guat, 74, a housewife who lives in a rental flat with her husband, said that she used to visit the senior activity centre every Monday to Friday for up to an hour each time.

With virtual interaction, she now feels less bored at home.

“I don’t usually call my friends, we only text on WhatsApp. I’m quite introverted and don’t often talk to people,” she admitted. 

Madam Khatijah also said that she would prefer to speak to her friends through video calls, like she did for the virtual interaction, instead of talking over the phone.

“But I don’t know how to make the video call and I always end up pressing the wrong thing,” she added.

With virtual volunteering, DBS employees who were previously unable to take part in conventional volunteer activities because of mobility or health issues can now do so.

Ms Syaza Abidin, 32, an associate from the technology and operations department at DBS, said that she found the virtual volunteering convenient because she could slot in some time to accompany the seniors during her lunch hour.

“The flexibility allows me to be there for them no matter where I am or how busy I am,” she said.

Ms Tan Suan Heok, 52, senior vice-president of the technology and operations department in DBS, said that virtual volunteering also allows the elders to have more one-on-one interactions.

“At the end of the day, what matters is that we can be there for them to help make them feel less alone,” she said.

Related topics

seniors elderly Lions Befrienders DBS suicide loneliness online chat

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