Service-learning in action: NUS students befriend seniors and champion healthy ageing under year-long community engagement courses

To promote a caring society that better supports Singapore’s seniors to live well and age gracefully – that is at the heart of two year-long service-learning courses NUS is offering in partnership with the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC) as part of the Communities & Engagement Pillar of its General Education curriculum.

Under the two courses  –  GEN2060 Reconnect SeniorsSG and GEN2061 Support Healthy AgeingSG  – students will first pick up skills such as empathetic communication and active listening to help them connect with seniors through a structured academic programme overseen by the Department of Social Work at NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Thereafter, they will be sent out to the community to engage with seniors through AIC’s Senior Befriending and Silver Generation Ambassador (SGA) programmes.  

Students Ashley Gue, Navaraj Rajendran and Kevin Wong are among some 900 students who have served as befrienders or Silver Generation Ambassadors to seniors under the service-learning courses which launched in August 2022. They share how the courses made them more aware of the needs of seniors and why the experience has been both humbling and fulfilling.

Serving as senior befrienders

Third-year NUS Life Sciences undergraduate Ashley Gue is one of the 400 students who signed up to be a senior befriender under the ‘Reconnect SeniorsSG’ course. Through weekly visits to meet the seniors, accompanying them for activities in their neighbourhoods, or helping them run errands, the initiative aims to encourage seniors to remain active and connected to society so that they can age healthily. Over 400 NUS students are currently serving as senior befrienders and the number is expected to increase to 900 next year.

Beyond building a rapport with her senior during their weekly engagement sessions, Ashley and her buddy went the extra mile by bringing their wheelchair-bound senior to different hawker centres after discovering that he was a big foodie!

“When we visited hawker centres, you could tell that he was very happy about it. He would share about how this particular stall was still around, or which stall had good food. So, the trips (to the hawker centres) were always very memorable and I enjoyed it a lot,” Ashley recalls.

Becoming a Silver Generation Ambassador

Despite having a close relationship with his grandmother, third-year NUS Life Sciences undergraduate Navaraj Rajendran signed up to be a SGA as he wanted to learn how to better engage seniors, and in turn, provide better care for his grandmother.

Working with AIC’s Silver Generation Office, students who participate in the ‘Support Healthy AgeingSG’ course are trained to engage seniors in their homes to share relevant government schemes and policies, as well as activities and services that are available in the vicinity. Through these interactions, the volunteers can better understand the seniors’ aspirations and needs, and provide them with the appropriate assistance. So far, more than 500 NUS students have been trained as SGAs and another 1,200 will be trained next year.

When asked to describe his experience in one word, Kevin Wong, a third-year NUS Economics undergraduate shared that it was humbling as it opened his eyes to the bigger picture – that life is more than just grades and academics. As an introvert, he had to make a conscious effort to push himself out of his comfort zone to initiate genuine conversations with the seniors. “When the ‘Support Healthy AgeingSG’ course was made available, I saw it as an opportunity to give back…to do something for the seniors facing challenges – be it in the areas of healthcare or social isolation.”

For Navaraj, the experience was so fulfilling that he chose to continue volunteering with AIC even after completing the course. “Although less frequently than before, since it’s no longer part of the academic programme, I want to continue serving.”

Spending time to befriend seniors, accompanying them for walks, or even sharing information about the relevant Government schemes may seem insignificant to the average person. For the seniors, however, these seemingly small gestures are acts of kindness that go a long way. Through these two courses, students are given a valuable opportunity to think deeper about societal issues, take constructive actions and be a part of the change to build a more caring society in Singapore.

Read the press release here.