Having spent the last four decades nursing male patients of all ages and backgrounds through their mental conditions, 70-year-old Rosemary Lee thought she had seen it all. So when the retired nurse from the Institute of Mental Health realised that there were over 1,000 homebound people – many of them seniors – living in her Bedok neighbourhood, she was shocked. “The elderly that I see are abled-bodied so I didn’t know there were so many of them who can’t leave their homes.” The discovery came after a friend urged her to join Eastern Health Alliance’s Friend a Senior Programme, which trains residents to offer physical and emotional support to seniors.
In April 2015, she was paired with 82-year-old Mr Teo Eng Swee who had been admitted to hospital thrice, the latest following a fall. Mdm Lee visits him fortnightly in his two-room rental flat and spends most of the time chatting. “Mr Teo is the reserved type, but I realise you just need to probe a bit and he’ll open up. So we reminisce about the old days. He tells me he sold rojak, Hokkien mee, Teochew porridge and Char Kway Teow. His memory is actually still very good.”
Where she guffaws at her own joke, he merely smiles shyly. They make an odd duo to observers. But to care staff, it means the difference between Mr Teo living at home and getting readmitted to hospital, again. Mdm Lee, who understands how important it is to engage her past patients, says the same of seniors of Mr Teo’s generation. “It is important that we help the elderly not to face the four walls but to give them something to look forward to. Only then can dementia be thwarted.” As to those who think befriending seniors is not their cup of tea, Mdm Lee suggests putting oneself in the shoes of the seniors. “You must fast forward to 30 years later when you are also alone and don’t have any friend to talk to because yours have all passed on. What would you want then? So we must try to make them comfortable now. Even a smile is better than a medical pill.”