SINGAPORE — Digital transformation is reaching every age group in Singapore. However, behind the scenes of this tech wave, a struggle is unfolding.
Seniors, eager to adapt, are finding themselves grappling with their limited familiarity with technology amid this digital tide. As the city-state forges ahead, the emotional toll of digitalisation on its elderly population is becoming increasingly evident.
Still, there are success stories. Cheng Siew Kee, 87, started her journey into the digital world four years ago with a Samsung smartphone, which was initially unfamiliar and intimidating to her. She recalls, "I was struggling to operate it, and it took me a while. I just played with it and asked if I wasn't sure."
She now proudly states, "Now, I know how to use WhatsApp to call my grandson."
Fuelled by a determination not to be left behind by younger generations, Cheng embraced the challenge of learning technology head-on. She shares, "Seniors need to learn and not just remain quiet. We don't stop learning; we have to continue learning so that we can be on a par with the young people."
Empowering seniors through active ageing centres
Singapore is one of the fastest-ageing nations in the world. Currently, about one in five Singaporeans is a senior aged 65 and above. According to the Population In Brief 2022 report, that ratio will rise to nearly one in four by 2030.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted the concern of isolation faced by seniors, particularly those who live alone, in his National Day Rally speech on 20 August.
He emphasised his dedication to expanding the network of Active Ageing Centres (AACs) to support seniors in maintaining engagement and social interaction. These centres play a crucial role as places where seniors can discover companionship, participate in activities, and access digital resources.
Edward Tang, assistant manager of Care Corner Seniors Services, notes the dual nature of seniors' relationship with technology.
"While digital devices have empowered some to cope better, they also pose challenges, including fear of scams and intimidation from unfamiliar interfaces," he observed.
Care Corner Singapore, a social service agency that enhances the well-being of seniors, has been at the forefront of addressing these challenges.
With nine AACs serving over 3,500 seniors, Care Corner acknowledges that the emotional toll of digitalisation cannot be ignored. Their initiatives focus on providing access to digital tools and alleviating the emotional strains that seniors may experience in this digital age.
Through tailored programs and support systems, Care Corner aims to bridge the emotional gap that technology widens, by providing not only digital devices and training but also a support network that empowers seniors to navigate the digital waters with confidence.
"With the expansion of AACs, it should definitely help. Seniors need that sense of confidence and assurance. They don't mind trying things out if they know they have a centre and a worker to turn to. It gives them peace of mind knowing they have assistance."
Fostering connections and combating Isolation
Organisations such as Lions Befrienders (LB) are also emerging as beacons of support for seniors. LB's reach extends wide, encompassing over 8,000 elderly beneficiaries - including Cheng - as they navigate the uncharted waters of digitalisation.
LB recognises that technology can be a double-edged sword: It can be a powerful facilitator of connections, but it can also be a crippling source of isolation.
Its solution to combat senior isolation is the i-OK@LB device. Amid the challenges of the circuit breaker period during the COVID-19 pandemic three years ago, the tablet offered a lifeline for seniors, as it served as a virtual assurance system, enabling seniors to communicate their well-being thrice daily.
Beyond its role as a communication channel, the tablet also aids in medication reminders and facilitates tele-consultations with doctors, as home visits became challenging during the pandemic.
All the while as LB shifted its focus towards virtual platforms, it never sacrificed the human touch, as each of its 10 AACs was equipped with the tablets to bridge the physical gap between seniors and their caregivers.
Karen Wee, the executive director of LB Service Association, draws parallels between seniors' hesitation to embrace technology and the learning curve they faced when using buses.
"In the past if you told a senior to use a card and tap it as you board the bus, they would be like, 'Huh, what is that?' They were used to putting coins and, getting a ticket, and then telling the bus driver how much," she explained. "Now it's intuitive; every senior knows how to tap in and out.
"During COVID-19, it's the same thing. 'Oh, I don't know, I don't want to use QR codes,' but they started using them when they had to go to the malls and scan QR codes."
Wee acknowledges the pivotal role of necessity and how it has pushed seniors to grapple with technology. A significant mindset shift is therefore required.
"It's a matter of how long it takes for them to buy in. Technology has to be intuitive, and you must make it so that (the seniors) have almost no choice if they want to stay healthy, stay connected to their family overseas, and have these essential tools," she said.
Jennifer Tan, a 55-year-old homemaker, also sheds light on a facet of the digital age's emotional toll—the impact on familial connections. As her 23-year-old eldest son embarked on a study exchange program in the United States, Tan realised that she had to start navigating modern communication tools and social media in order to connect with him.
"When I found out from the younger one that my eldest had posted Instagram stories, I was like, why am I not in the loop?" she shared.
"Of course, being away that far, you worry about their security, the kind of people they meet, or if they're doing things you want to know about.
"To a certain extent, you need to keep up with the trends. If everybody is on Telegram, and then you have to be on Telegram, right? If you're not on Telegram, how are you going to connect?"
Bridging the gap for seniors in the digital age
Sammy How, assistant director of elder education at Fei Yue Community Services, recognises the intricate dance between technology and emotional well-being.
Time constraints and economic factors can hinder seniors' ability to embrace digital tools, often resulting in a lack of connection or a sense of belonging. How advocates for a deliberate effort to establish virtual communities that cater to seniors' intrinsic motivations and interests.
"Even if you are living with family, you can still feel lonely because everyone has their own activities and world," he said.
"A lack of communication can lead to loneliness even if you have digital skills. That's why having a virtual community is important, Through this virtual community, seniors can explore their interests and build friendships, which encourages them to engage more."
Fei Yue also actively promotes intergenerational bonding through digital initiatives. Their Intergenerational Learning Programme (ILP) encourages seniors and youths to connect via Skype and Facebook. These programs aim to foster intergenerational solidarity and promote social cohesion.
As the digital age reshapes the landscape of ageing, seniors in Singapore are navigating uncharted waters. The emotional toll of digitalisation cannot be underestimated, and social service agencies like Lions Befrienders, Care Corner Singapore and Fei Yue Community Services stand as guiding lights to lead seniors through these turbulent waters.
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