This 71-year-old retiree can’t wait for June 1 to come. But while many of us who are looking forward to the lifting of the eight-week circuit breaker to go out to meet friends, shop or just have a meal, Mr Soh Swee Kiat wants to start his volunteer work again.
For more than three decades, Soh has been visiting elderly folks in MacPherson estate, diligently spending weekends and evenings with the residents of the one-room apartment blocks at Merpati Road.
“Each time I visit the seniors and see how peaceful and contented they live, I feel humbled,” Soh says. He lives with his wife, Fee Chin, 66. The couple has no children.
With the recent Covid-19 safe distancing measures, all volunteer activity has been put on hold. But Soh is confident that it’s just a matter of time before he can check in on the seniors physically again.
“(In the past) Each fortnight, we visit eight old folks living in the three blocks here,” says Soh. “This is a neighbourhood where residents feel peaceful and content.”
Forming friendships with seniors
Over the years, Soh has made many connections with the elderly in the estate. He recounts the story of an 81-year-old retiree who lived alone. The man, Mr Ng, once worked as a lorry driver and a cobbler and used to regale Soh with stories of his exploits during the Japanese Occupation in World War II. Ng never married and lived alone, and so most of his social interactions came from talking to volunteers like Soh.
In Singapore, there are about 30,000 seniors like Mr Ng, relatively healthy but living on their own with few kin or friends.
Soh is part of a network of volunteers from the Lions Befrienders who visit these seniors, bringing them snacks, reading and explaining letters from the government, and even helping in minor repair work around the house.
“I volunteered as a befriender 33 years ago,” says Soh. “The befriending service was run by the then-Ministry of Community Development. Some officials from the ministry came to my church, where I am still a member, to give a talk and ask for volunteers. So I signed up.”
Reminiscing on his long history of service and engagement with seniors, Soh says he has befriended more than a dozen seniors. Some of them have since passed away.
Soh, who retired from his full-time job in human resources more than a decade ago, says that visiting and engaging with the seniors is not a chore.
“Sometimes we spend weekends window-shopping, forgetting that the same one or two hours, if spent with these seniors, can mean so much to them,” he says.
Another senior whom Soh regularly visits is 78-year-old Madam Lim Chin Huay, a former cleaning lady who no longer works because of leg problems.
“She used to cross overhead bridges and go to the market every day to buy groceries,” says Soh. “She tries to be active. Lately, (before the circuit breaker measures were announced) she has been going to nearby blocks to exercise with other seniors. She feels at home with them. She plays bingo as well.”
Soh recalled that with the assistance of IMDA, he set up a new television for Madam Lim and taught her how to use it.
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“Madam Lim is very polite and gentle,” Soh says. “She would offer us (the volunteers) drinks every time and give us food to eat when she had cooked extra.”
Unique stories and valuable lessons
Interacting with the seniors has given Soh a wealth of unique stories and valuable lessons.
He recounts candidly: “(One of the seniors) had been frightened many times by a neighbour’s noisy dog.”
“One day, while she was asleep, she was startled awake by the dog’s barking and fell off her bed. It was so bad that she was hospitalised! (The dispute with her neighbour got so nasty that) she even called in the police.”
On one occasion when Soh was visiting her, the woman got into a quarrel with her neighbour. Soh had to intervene to calm her down.
She continued to be so troubled and unhappy over the dog that she wanted to take matters up at a Meet-The-People session. Eventually, Soh helped her write a complaint letter to the HDB.
“I was able to resolve the situation by getting relevant authorities to step in and helping translate and explain what they said. Now things have calmed down. Through this, I learnt that we can prevent a relatively small neighbourly dispute from blowing up when we take the initiative to help smooth things over.”
Keeping himself alert
Like most of the old folks who are still trim and alert, Soh keeps himself physically and mentally active.
“I read the Bible every day. I also read management books, and I take part in the Toastmasters Club of Singapore. As a Toastmaster, I am required not only to deliver speeches, but also to act as a judge at speech contests.”
Being a befriender for 33 years has left a strong impression on Soh’s heart.
Soh says: “Despite their low income and the lack of material comfort, the seniors live peaceful, placid lives. And when they know I’m coming to visit them, they would always leave the main door open for me.”
For more information on how you can help at Lions Befrienders, visit https://www.lionsbefrienders.org.sg.