Coming together in a whole-of-society approach to address Singapore's ageing population challenges

How can the whole of society be mobilised to tackle the challenges of an ageing population in Singapore? As the Singapore population demographic greys progressively, this question was at the centre of discussion at the annual symposium of the NUS Chua Thian Poh Community Leadership Centre (CTPCLC).

Held on 30 September at NUS University Town, the symposium gathered more than 120 attendees consisting of NUS students, staff and alumni, as well as stakeholders from the public and social sectors. Now in its 11th iteration, the in-person event saw changemakers, community leaders, and thought leaders discussing the issue of 'Challenges of an Ageing Population in Singapore', and how different organisations and individuals are doing their part to tackle this challenge.

The event was graced by Guest-of-Honour Mr Tan Kiat How, Senior Minister of State for Ministry of Communications and Information and for National Development, and Adviser to East Coast GRC Grassroots Organisations.

Noting that Singapore is home to some of the world’s longest living persons, Mr Tan highlighted the importance of closing the gap between life span and health span, adding that this is where everyone has a role. Mr Tan also reflected on his experiences of encountering seniors forming social networks and actively volunteering in the community, to overcome social isolation.

Expressing his delight that the CTPCLC curriculum has offered undergraduates a path to support these initiatives with their research and involvement in the community, Mr Tan expressed that this would bode well for our community, as it takes an all-of-community approach to tackle the challenges of an ageing society like Singapore.

Holistic approaches to ageing

Attendees at the symposium delved into a thought-provoking hour-long panel discussion elaborating on efforts and plans to address the challenges of the ageing population in Singapore. Moderated by CTPCLC alumna Ms Sim Rou Chen, Chief Operating Officer of WeHiro, panellists Mr Chern Siang Jye, Group Chief, Sector and Partnerships Division, Agency for Integrated Care; Associate Professor (Dr) Kenny Tan, Chief Executive Officer of St Luke's ElderCare Ltd; and Associate Professor Thang Leng Leng from the Department of Japanese Studies and Co-Director of the Next Age Institute, NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences), exchanged stories, insights, and recommendations on effectively addressing the challenges posed by an ageing population.

The discussion explored topics such as healthcare management, social support systems, and policy interventions, all designed to address key challenges faced by the elderly in our community. Assoc Prof (Dr) Kenny Tan captured the challenges succinctly in three words: helplessness, loneliness and boredom.

These thoughts were also echoed by Assoc Prof Thang Leng Leng, who spoke about loneliness and social isolation, even for elderly parents who may be living with their children, when conversations within the home could be limited to routine check-ins such as “Have you taken your medicine today?”

The discussion underscored the real need for elderly among the community to be actively engaged – and that the community can play a part through raising awareness of the former’s needs and supporting befrienders’ programmes, in ensuring that seniors can age amidst a strong social support network.  

From engagement to effort

Since its establishment in 2011, CTPCLC has continually challenged and empowered its students to explore the many facets of Singapore society and consider solutions to alleviate and address societal issues. CTPCLC students’ thoughtful analyses and implementations were showcased at the symposium through presentations, demonstrations and poster displays.

CTPCLC students and project partners Charmaine Song (Business, Year 4) and Tong Hui Yi (Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Year 4) took to the stage to elaborate on a year-long project they had embarked on in partnership with Thye Hua Kwan Moral Charities Limited.

During their project, which was titled ‘Reimagining the Active Ageing Centres (AACs) of Thye Hua Kwan’, Charmaine and Hui Yi interacted with seniors who were service users at Active Ageing Centres (AACs) in Ang Mo Kio. From the conversations, they gathered the seniors’ various opinions and hopes on how the AAC could further develop to serve Singapore’s ageing population.

Adopting a mixed methods approach that incorporated the use of observation work, semi-structured interviews, focus group discussions and online surveys, their study revealed that future AACs can play a vital role in serving as important sources of social, cultural and spatial capital for seniors: AACs provide social capital through important networks and social support among seniors; cultural capital by being a hub for acquiring new knowledge that will empower them; and spatial capital by being a potential ‘home away from home’, enabling seniors’ access to additional spaces of emotional and physical comfort.

The study also put forth key recommendations that highlighted how AACs can be further developed as a space for intergenerational communal socialisation, while serving as a rallying site for proactive seniors to engage in community-related volunteerism.

Beyond talks and discussions, attendees at the symposium also engaged with passionate CTPCLC alumni and students at a series of live demonstrations and poster displays detailing their various engagements with the community.

Amongst these was a demonstration by CTPCLC alumnus Mr Willoughby Niki Lee (College of Design and Engineering, Class of 2022) of his brainchild BoomBox - AI-based gamified activities innovated to help in seniors’ wellbeing, inspired by his love for the community and his engineering knowledge.

Ms Sim Rou Chen (Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Class of 2022) also led an ageing simulation demonstration which allowed participants to experience what ageing could feel like, through the use of props and equipment like goggles, walking sticks and sandbags which hinder physical movement. Through this, participants developed a greater understanding and empathy of the physical, and thereafter, social and emotional, encounters and challenges that seniors could be facing in their daily lives.

Celebrating tomorrow’s changemakers

A ceremony was also held at the symposium to honour the achievements of CTPCLC’s Class of 2023, acknowledging their completion of the community development and leadership programme in NUS and celebrating their achievements in driving positive change within communities in Singapore.

“The Symposium has come at an opportune time as I begin my career in the community care sector,” said CTPCLC alumni Mr Kho Yong Xiang (Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Class of 2023).

“CPTCLC has once again proven to be an invaluable platform for addressing the priorities of today. I heard peers discussing their ground-up research as well as connecting with partners and experts in the eldercare space. I am thankful for my time at the Centre and hope for more students to embrace the opportunities offered by CTPCLC,“ he added.

Beyond academics, the annual CTPCLC symposium provides a platform for like-minded individuals to share knowledge, foster collaboration, and inspire future leaders to address pressing community issues, making a difference to those around them. From their first tentative steps of taking courses at CTPCLC, the symposium also documents how students have been empowered to develop themselves further into passionate community builders and future leaders. 

“In addition to the good work our alumni and students are doing in the community, it is really heartening that they continue to engage the Centre at an event like this one,” said Associate Professor Chng Huang Hoon, Director of CTPCLC. “I feel very proud to have been a part of their wonderful journey.”

By NUS Chua Thian Poh Community Leadership Centre