How would you feel if you were not able to see your children and grandchildren on one of the most important days of the year?

This year, Hari Raya Aidilfitri falls on 24 May. While those in the Muslim community typically celebrate the festive occasion with large family gatherings, families can celebrate the first few days of Aidilfitri only within their immediate household since it falls within the extended circuit breaker. For one grandfather, not seeing his children and grandchildren prompted him to make a heartfelt plea to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to ease the circuit breaker just for a day.

The touching video moved many who sympathised with his plight. One netizen even posted an appeal that she wrote to PM Lee.

However, others agreed that for the safety of the community, it is better for families to wait until after the circuit breaker to meet and celebrate, as congregating – even within immediate families – could potentially undo all the progress Singapore has made in fighting the virus.

Healthcare worker and contact tracer Eryan Ali wrote: “We spent days (since early February) screening and tracing people, trying to link the pieces. I keep wondering when it will end, sometimes I just want to give up, because (the number of cases) are too many. Staying at home proved to be effective in reducing the numbers. Let’s not jeopardise the efforts. It only takes just one person to be the source of community spread.”

Social isolation among vulnerable seniors

It has been five weeks since the circuit breaker measures meant that family members from different households were not allowed to gather, This means that many grandparents have not seen their children and grandchildren for that period – more than half of Singapore residents aged 65 and above are living alone or with their spouses only.

While five weeks may not seem like a long time to those who are busy working from home, it can feel like an eternity for seniors who do not have anything at home to keep themselves busy, other than watching television or listening to the radio.

And while many of us younger folk can turn to video conferencing tools to connect with friends and family, as well as enjoy various forms of online entertainment, many seniors are experiencing a sense of displacement in an unfamiliar digital world.

Their days, once filled with lively conversations at void decks and coffee shops, activity groups at community centres and mahjong gatherings, are now, in the blink of an eye, gone.

This lack of social interaction has caused many seniors to become isolated. And for this vulnerable group, the ills that come with social isolation pose a significant health risk, both physically and mentally.

How can seniors keep healthy and stay connected while facing the same four walls every day?

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Staying connected and healthy

To be fair, most of our elderly folk know that they can find social interaction through online tools. The thing that is holding them back is the fear of the unknown. So the key is to help them embrace technology.

For example, Dr William Wan, 73, started a #WWpushupchallenge on Facebook to encourage seniors to be active at home.

“Staying fit is being kind to ourselves,” Wan, who is the general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, says. “Doing push-ups is only one (form of exercise) but there are other things seniors can do in terms of physical exercise. I wanted to show people that you can be over seventy and not be frail. The human body is capable of being trained and can retain muscle mass and strength even in old age!”

Wan says that many of his friends, some of whom are of his generation, have been inspired by the video and even taken on the challenge themselves.

To stay connected with his family, who is scattered around the world in six cities, Wan also has weekly video conferences with them. He encourages seniors to think creatively and make use of the Internet to keep learning new things.

Another senior who has changed her routine is 87-year-old Grace Leong, who used to play mahjong with her friends almost every week before the circuit breaker. Thanks to some tutoring help from her grandchildren, she has learnt how to play the game on the iPad. While she says it is not the same as playing with friends, it helps keep her mind active and she enjoys it greatly. She even records her scores on a sheet of paper to calculate her winnings.

The only downside? “Why the points so little!” she jokes, after winning a round against her virtual opponents.

Leong has also been doing daily morning exercises and cooking Cantonese-style dishes for her family. She gets inspired by watching cooking clips on YouTube. Her favourite show? “Fei Ma! (Fat Mama)”, she says without missing a beat, referring to (popular cooking programme) Maria’s Kitchen, hosted by Hong Kong celebrity Maria Cordero.

Other seniors are also finding solace in solo activities, such as going for walks around the neighbourhood, making phone calls to friends, and finding simple yet meaningful things like colouring, gardening or just tidying up the house.

For more ideas for things for seniors to do at home, the Council for Third Age (C3A) has launched a Stay Home, Stay Active initiative – offering a one-stop platform with curated content covering a variety of online learning resources – to encourage seniors and their loved ones to be physically and mentally engaged while they stay safe at home.

Extra kindness to seniors

Let’s face it. Everyone is coping with the circuit breaker. If you are feeling stifled and bored from being cooped up at home, imagine how much worse it is for the less tech-savvy elderly.

We can help by being more understanding towards their needs. Put ourselves in their shoes. Be patient with them.

Explain why the circuit breaker measures are necessary at this time and help them understand why it is important for everyone to play their part. Keep in touch often. Don’t just call, make it a video call. Don’t just chat about their day, get involved with teaching them new skills to update themselves. Keep them updated on the latest happenings as they may not be able to catch up with news as quickly.

Grandmas, grandpas, older daddies and mummies, you are not alone. Your children miss you just as much as you miss them.

Let’s wait out this circuit breaker patiently, so that when we meet again, we will embrace, laugh, eat and play – without fear – just like old times.

More importantly, we will learn to treasure and appreciate family more, visiting them as much as we can, instead of only waiting for special occasions to do so.

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