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What do you miss from pre pandemic life?

Most miss going out on a Friday night, spending time with a large group of family and friends and some might even miss going back to the office!

Social interaction has taken a hit in the two years we’ve been dealing with Covid. This is alleviated somewhat by the power of the Internet: allowing WFH, HBL for work and other forms of online recreation for entertainment, shopping and home deliveries.

Even though the government has given the green light for families of up to five to dine together, there are several communities that have been hard hit by the Covid restrictions.

For example, migrant workers have been suffering from more incidents of depression from being restricted to their dorms, although there have been more positive developments recently.

Another group facing an uphill battle to stay positive during the Covid pandemic is our seniors, especially those in community care facilities. The Ministry of Health recently announced that physical visits to hospitals and residential care homes will continue to be suspended until Nov 21.

But Alan Wong, 41, and his fellow volunteers from CloverHearts Singapore have been tackling this issue in a most creative way: Through Zoom sessions on their mobile phones

Dai Ni Qu Zou Zou “Let’s go for a walk!”

When the pandemic hit, most volunteer organisations had to pause their outreach work or look for virtual solutions. Cloverhearts, which was set up in 2018, is a small group of about 10 volunteers that works mainly with Ren Ci Community Hospital.

Explains Alan, who founded the group: “When Covid hit, Ren Ci asked volunteer groups how many were willing to pivot online.

“Coming from the training industry, my style is ‘never try, never know’. We did not know what to expect but all of us were determined to make it happen.”

Alan and his team of 10 started with online sessions with the seniors where they would sing songs and play games through an online platform for seniors called SilverActivities.

But they ran into a problem, says Alan.

“All these games are meant to be used by active seniors who are able to communicate. But for the group we were engaging with, it was really more of one-way communication. As we did the online sessions, we realised that they were just looking at the screen projection like how they would watch TV.

CloverHeart Singapore Volunteers
Alan started the virtual tours to help bedridden seniors get a firsthand experience of places they want to visit but can’t. Image source: CloverHearts Singapore

“So we tried to evolve and that was when we had our first installment of 帶你去走走! (dai ni qu zou zou, literally, take you out for a walk in Mandarin)”

It started off when the team spoke to some of the seniors to find out what they wanted the volunteers to do.

Alan recounts: “It started with simple requests, like, ‘oh, I used to live in Jurong, how does it look like now?’.”

“Instead of trying to describe it to them, we just decided why not just show it to them? So for our first session, we went to Jurong Lake Gardens and took them on a virtual tour, complete with a running commentary!”

“That’s when we realised that this was a perfect starting point for them to start conversations with both us and their roommates. Suddenly, these seniors started sharing their experiences and their memories of the different areas that we visited.

“They could hear the sounds and see the sights. Most of them never experienced virtual tours like these before and were excited. We ended up going to several locations like the Singapore Botanical Gardens and Sembawang Hot Spring park.”

CloverHeart Singapore Volunteers
Volunteer Ruth showing the seniors around Dignity Kitchen during one of the virtual tours. Image source: CloverHearts Singapore

One of the tours took the seniors to Dignity Kitchen at 69 Boon Keng Road, where they were given a firsthand look of how the non-profit organisation that helps people with special needs operates.

The team even visited Jewel during one of their streams, as that was one of the places requested by the seniors

“While we were streaming from Jewel, the seniors were really excited as most of them have never had the chance to visit. A few of them thanked us for showing them something they heard so much about, but were never able to see,” says Alan.

Cloverhearts’ efforts did not go unnoticed and the group was given the Inspirational Engagement Award 2021 at Ren Ci’s Volunteer Appreciation event last month.

Alan says that the staff at Ren Ci helped them in many ways.

“They would help to move the seniors, most of whom are not very mobile, from their wards to the recreation room so they could take part in the interactive stream. We tried our best to add information on our stream for the nursing staff as well, to make them feel involved.

“We would tell them how to get to the locations by public or private transport as well as the safest alighting points and best timings to bring the seniors out for an excursion when the pandemic restrictions get more relaxed,” he adds.

Finding empathy for others

CloverHeart Singapore Volunteers
Volunteer Faith (left) and Joann giving a tour of an indoor hydroponics garden. Image source: CloverHearts Singapore

Even though the group is running smoothly now, it wasn’t easy when they first started.

Alan laughs when he tells The Pride: “Imagine playing a videogame for the first time on the hardest difficulty, that’s how we felt!”

He says that the idea for setting up CloverHearts came in 2018 when he was on the MRT. One day, he saw some youths not giving up their seats to some seniors who were looking for a place to sit down. Alan says that he overheard one of the seniors grumbling about how selfish these young Singaporeans were.

He explains: “I started to wonder, ‘are our youths really so unempathetic? What can we do to foster empathy towards our seniors and show our appreciation?’”

Having working with schools for over 15 years, Alan kept in touch with some of his students.

“I told them that I wanted to do something about it and seven former students agreed to help. The eight of us decided to start our own initiative to focus on assisting a whole spectrum of groups from youths to the elderly,” says Alan, “and that’s how CloverHearts began.”

CloverHeart Singapore Volunteers
Cloverhearts tried different ways of incorporating interactivity into the sessions with the seniors. Image source: CloverHearts Singapore

The volunteers started by interacting with seniors at Ren Ci’s senior care centre.

“As this was our first time volunteering with seniors, we did not know what to expect. We thought it would be easy, just having conversations with seniors and interacting with them and playing games.

“But most of the seniors in these wards were either non-responsive to us or bedridden, at times we would not even get a response.”

Alan recalled that during the first few visits, volunteers started to question if the seniors actually liked their company.

But it got better. They learnt to observe the beneficiaries’ body language and adapt to doing what the seniors were comfortable with.

Recalls Alan: “There were a couple of teen volunteers who interacted with an elderly man who always gave them a very strong, almost painful handshake. Initially, they did not feel comfortable but they later understood that it was because he was happy to have their company. Some of the elderly couldn’t communicate well verbally so we had to find different ways to show care and understanding.”

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“Each senior was different. There’s another man who always cried when he saw us and at first we were unable to tell what he was feeling — was he happy or sad? After more sessions, we realised he blinked a lot when he cried and we found out that he was trying to respond to us in his own non-verbal way. We realised that he was just trying to tell us what he liked, how he felt or what he wanted.”

“Volunteering at Ren Ci not just benefitted the seniors, it helped all of us too. As volunteers, we learnt a lot; from being able to understand our seniors in non-verbal conversations to creating a relationship with each of them.”

This is important, says Alan, because working with beneficiaries is about helping volunteers in their personal growth journeys as well.

“I always have a slogan, Empathy at Heart, Kindness in action.”

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