During Singapore’s circuit breaker period, various incidences of the elderly flouting safe distancing rules emerged in the media, leading to concerns that this group in particular is struggling with the requirement to self-isolate.
Abiding by social distancing restrictions is understandably more difficult for lower-educated and illiterate seniors, as they usually obtain their information from a small circle of friends. When socialising outside of one’s household was prohibited, seniors lost their main source of news. The elderly, especially those who live alone, also find it particularly hard to social distance due to sheer loneliness.
“Those who are not ‘wired up’ digitally are not able to augment face-to-face interactions with digital connections. Many used to rely on social networks they meet in the community centre and recreational settings for social support and information,” says Paulin Straughan, Professor of Sociology (Practice) at Singapore Management University’s School of Social Sciences.
“With social distancing measures in place, they find it harder to get to information, discuss rules and regulations, which tend to change swiftly as the situation is dynamic, and they end up being very confused.”
A visible target
More seniors also appeared to be breaking circuit breaker rules as they are less able to evade enforcement efforts, compared with their younger and more mobile counterparts, argues Prof Straughan. She worries that this group is being made scapegoats in the name of keeping the community safe.
“We assume that it is harder for them to abide by the rules, but I think we perceive this only because they are caught. Many people do not conform, but they are ‘hidden’ in remote settings like parks and recreation spaces. The elderly living in the heartlands tend to be more visible as they sit in common spaces, and may be easily spotted by social distancing ambassadors,” she says.
Dealing with loneliness
With more than half of Singapore residents aged 65 and above living alone or with their spouses only, this vulnerable group needs more support from society to get through this challenging period. Prof Straughan calls for the authorities to pay special attention to the elderly when implementing any new measure to contain the pandemic.
While she believes that social workers have been doing “amazing work” with door-to-door visits and telephone calls to engage with seniors during this time, more must be done on the digital front to help them. “To help the elderly during this period, we must be mindful of the digital gap, and must try to close this gap so that they are not left in social isolation.”
Seniors who have no experience using computers and smart phones will not have the means to keep in touch with friends and family while they self-isolate, making them feel more alienated. And with only a few days’ notice before the circuit breaker was put in place in early April, there was not enough time or opportunity to help the elderly become familiar with these devices.
Moving forward, if social distancing is the new norm, the government must design safe meeting spaces for the elderly so that they are still able to gather, but within safe parameters. This may involve opening up community spaces, while limiting the number of persons allowed in.
“I think it’s very important to address the loneliness that results from social distancing for our vulnerable elderly. Concurrently, perhaps we can work towards a project that would empower them to use technology to connect with friends and chat groups,” says Prof Straughan.
Closing the digital gap
Indeed, there needs to be a concerted effort to help the elderly bridge the digital divide if a longer-term solution to the issue of alienation is to be found. Such an initiative will need to go beyond just providing seniors with the infrastructure to stay connected.
“Wiring up housing estates and providing each household with a tablet is not sufficient. We have to ensure that our elderly are taught to use these devices in a safe manner. For example, to sign up for a Facebook account, you need an e-mail address,” says Prof Straughan.
“I have received many bewildered looks when I tried to create a social media presence for our Pioneer Generation and Merdeka Generation members. And when there is a software update, another round of confusion occurs when accounts are frozen because of incompatibility of software versions.”
The problem is particularly urgent for seniors who live alone and do not have family members to assist them in digital matters. As such, Prof Straughan proposes bringing the technology to where the elderly gather, in order to better help them acquire the knowledge they require to stay connected to the rest of society.
In this regard, the recent setting up of the SG Digital Office (SDO) to help local stallholders and the elderly join the online world is timely. The initiative will involve 1,000 digital ambassadors reaching out to these groups to support them in their digital journey.
Says Prof Straughan: “It is one thing to step up on hardware, but it is equally important to invest in software and the training of digital ambassadors who can handhold our older adults and empower them to leverage technology.”