By Susana Concordo Harding
Who doesn’t love an extra day off? About one in five colleagues in my organisation got to skip work on 1 October. While others – including myself – were hard at work preparing for an event in the community, this group spent their day indulging in Netflix, baking, exercising, connecting with family and friends, having a spa day, or simply doing nothing. Scrolling through their Facebook and Instagram pages, I anticipate the day I get to enjoy this latest staff benefit by my employer to honour a special group among us.
One week ahead of 1 October 2021, Tsao Foundation announced at an employee townhall that in celebration of this year’s United Nations International Day of Older Persons (UNIDOP), those 60 and above get to take Friday, 1 October, off. No work, just rest, or play! Colleagues in that age bracket rejoiced, but so did the rest of us – the 4 in 5 – who were not eligible to enjoy this privilege, yet. For it is heartening to work for an organisation that not just talks the talk, but also walks the talk.
Longevity is opportunity
For close to three decades, Tsao Foundation has been looking after the interests of seniors, particularly those who need help. Since 1993, we have focused on promoting successful and active ageing. Today, we continue to empower seniors to participate meaningfully and productively in society and the community. Employment in later years is an area we are passionate about and it felt right that we celebrate older persons within our employment. I have been advocating for this since 2013, when we organised our first UNIDOP event.
New joiners are often surprised to hear seasoned staff say “unlike other organisations, the older you are, the more valuable you are to the foundation”. Indeed, unlike the FAANGs and its equivalent in Singapore - where millennials make up majority of its staff - the average age of our employees is 46. While we value both young and old employees, we also embrace the adage that ‘old is gold’.
We deem longevity an opportunity, not all about cost, burden or problem. Older persons have plenty to offer. Wisdom, experience, stories, recipes, culture, history lessons – just to name a few of their worthy contributions to younger generations in and outside of the workforce. As we approach our 30th anniversary in two years’ time, we reflect on our achievements and are satisfied. We have pioneered approaches to eldercare in the community across a range of disciplines to empower mature adults to master their own ageing journey over their life course in self-care, growth and development.
First time jitters – for ourselves and our seniors in the community
The digital divide between the older and younger generations has always been a concern and the COVID-19 pandemic really highlighted this divide and the importance to fast-track our digital transformation journey with our seniors, kicking it into overdrive in 2020. This year’s theme for the UNIDOP - “digital equity for all ages” resonates deeply. Pre-pandemic, Tsao Foundation gathered seniors, stakeholders and community partners together physically, in our offices, at our clinics and centres at Tiong Bahru and Whampoa. COVID-19 disrupted the way we have been doing things for three decades, we were caught off guard, but not for long. We quickly found our footing to adapt our practices to the unabated changes around the pandemic, including relying on the power of technology to continue being the change agent for successful ageing.
We are not alone. At our recent virtual event on 2 October to celebrate the UNIDOP, three special guests in their 70s and 80s shared their foray into the digital world. Mdm Ratnam, Mdm Lai and Mr Timothy Ng are among 110 seniors whose hands we held firmly to cross the digital divide. For them and another 107 seniors, being plugged into the digital space is an imperative.
Ability to thrive regardless of age
Singapore is a great place to live and that privilege should transcend one’s life course – well into our later years. We have a plethora of choices when we move through childhood, adulthood, and parenthood – many good schools, great jobs, affordable housing and quality healthcare to choose from, and enjoy. But as we age, some of these options are no longer within reach. Access to the digital world and the ability to afford or navigate it is one such concern among seniors.
Against this backdrop, Tsao Foundation surveyed 115 seniors from Whampoa and Boon Keng during the early days of the pandemic and discovered that access to ICT decreases with age. For seniors 80 and above, only half of those polled had smartphones, less than half have mobile plans, and only 14% have internet at home. Compared to their younger cohort, over 80% in their 60s have smartphones, 76% have mobile plans and 42% have internet at home. For those in their 80s or older, only one in five have someone at home to guide them in using the smartphone, compared to half of those in the 60s and 70s. Among those with a smartphone, the data showed stratifying digital literacy among three groups. Sixteen percent do not use any social networking services. Forty-seven percent use WhatsApp only. Thirty-seven percent use a combination of WhatsApp + Zoom/Facebook/WhatsApp.
Based on the findings, a Digital Literacy Course was conducted. 110 seniors learned to use WhatsApp where today, many of them interact with our care teams via WhatsApp, on upcoming events or to check in on each other. For Mdm Ratnam, Mdm Lai and Mr Ng, the course was a confidence booster, they traverse the online world like a duck to water – pay bills, book facilities, attend virtual events and the list goes on. Beyond seniors, our clinician teams help caregivers of frail or cognitively impaired seniors get online, making telehealth an option of care.
Looking into the future: A Longevity Day?
The digital literacy programme is just the beginning. We hope more seniors across Singapore will be inspired by these 110 digital trailblazers and take the bold leap forward. More of us need to think about the importance of digital inclusion of older persons, while tackling stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination associated with digitalisation. Do older persons have access to the digital world? Can they afford to be connected? Do they know how to navigate the online world? What about their online privacy and safety?
At the Tsao Foundation’s IDOP virtual event on Saturday 2 Oct 2021, Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth & Second Minister for Law urged everyone to include seniors in a digital future, “Digitalisation is transforming our future and has given us unprecedented access to places, people and possibilities. We need to ensure that seniors are included in this digital future.” He added, “For tech-savvy seniors, do volunteer to help your peers around you! We can all do our part to provide a network of digital caregiving for our seniors so that no one gets left behind.”
Growing up, we have all enjoyed Children’s Day and Youth Day with celebrations and a day off school. Coincidentally, Children’s Day used to be celebrated on 1 October till 2011 when it was changed to the first Friday of October. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a day off too as we progress in life stages, truly reaping the blessings of longevity? Now that would make it a happy International Day of Older Persons for all ages.
Susana Concordo Harding is Senior Director, International Longevity Centre Singapore, at the Tsao Foundation.