Singapore's first dementia-friendly kopitiam launched in Bishan

A hawker stall bearing a sign that offers advice on how to deal with patients suffering from dementia. (PHOTO: Stefanus Ian for Yahoo News Singapore)

Story by Lim Yong Teck, Photos by Stefanus Ian

The next time you visit the Kim San Leng coffee shop in Bishan, do not be alarmed if you hear someone shout: “Uncle, kopi-o add chili!”

Such an order may sound illogical but they are popping up more frequently at the kopitiam, where hawkers say they are seeing a rise in the number of elderly customers with dementia.

According to the Institute of Mental Health, one in 10 elderly persons aged 60 and above suffers from dementia.

To help address the issue, local philanthropic organisation Lien Foundation has partnered the Bishan East-Thomson constituency as part of its Forget-Us-Not initiative and is training hawker stall holders to recognise dementia symptoms.

According to a Lien Foundation press release on Saturday (7 October), the constituency has “twice the proportion of 80-year-olds compared to the national average” and the plan is to turn the Kim San Leng kopitiam into a “hub for sparking awareness and understanding” of dementia.

Hawkers at this first “dementia-friendly” coffee shop said the training helps them to be sensitive towards their customers with the condition.

“We found out that one of our regular customers has dementia through her daughter, and this elderly lady often returns for a second helping, forgetting that she already had taken her meal,” said Eunice Seah who runs the family-owned Yu Kee House of Braised Duck.

“The daughter actually told us that it’s all right and to let her stay around the area, and asked us for help to keep an eye out for her,” said Seah, 32, adding that similar incidents have been taking place more often at the kopitiam.

“We don’t charge her for her (extra) meals and we just make sure that she stays around the area till a family member comes to pick her up.”

Drink stall assistant Shen Lei, who works in the same coffee shop, added that customers with dementia are easily confused. “Sometimes, they ask the same questions over (and over) again, and sometimes, they forget that they’ve paid for their orders.”

The 24-hour kopitiam premises will also sport decals on dining tables to help educate the public on how to identify people with dementia and their behaviours, including asking certain questions that might offer a sign of their condition.

Too small a focus

While the initiative achieved its intended goals among the stallholders, some customers at the coffee shop on Saturday were skeptical about the efforts.

“The intention is for dementia, but I can’t see it from the decal. Because usually people don’t look at the small words and focus on the big words,” said Bishan resident Susan Tan.

“To me, it seems like it’s telling people that there are these dishes being sold here, and that maybe they taste different,” added the 43-year-old.

“Also, people may not pay attention to the decals once they place their food trays on the tables.”

While praising the intent behind the initiative, Tan added that more needed to be done to educate the public on the dangers of dementia, especially for elderly who are left alone.

Lien Foundation chief executive officer Lee Poh Wah. (PHOTO: Stefanus Ian for Yahoo News Singapore)

During a media briefing earlier in the day, Lien Foundation chief executive officer Lee Poh Wah acknowledged that there is more work to be done before Singapore will become dementia-friendly.

“We started Forget-Us-Not two years ago, to start conversations in the community and to build a network of dementia friends,” said Lee.

“At the end of the day, we want more awareness. There are a lot of limitations involved, but at least we tried,” added the 46-year-old.

The foundation has trained over 3,000 mainly frontline staff from all the major local banks along with about 700 officers in the transport sector – including bus and train operators as well as staff from the Land Transport Authority and the Public Transport Security Command.

Lee hopes that more Singaporeans will be sensitive and understanding towards persons with dementia.

Over the next year, the Bishan East-Thomson constituency will organise programmes, including talks and roadshows, as part of its continuing public and school outreach efforts. There will also be art and skit contests for school students.

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