Image Credit To: The Straits Times

Eldercare centres turn to tech to stay relevant, tackle labour crunch

Facilities catering to increasing number of seniors and variety of social, health needs

On a recent morning. retiree Goh Woon Seah, 76, was at the elder­ care centre at the void deck of 44 Beo Crescent relaxing on a sofa – in a space done up by furniture store Ikea – with a friend. Another regular, Madam Pak Geok Ting, 65, a coffee shop assistant, was in the main hall playing an interactive virtual game projected on the floor.

Seniors playing an interactive virtual game at Thye Hua Kwan Moral Charities’ Beo Crescent centre
on June 17, 2022.  ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

“Okay Google. play me a song.’ said Mr Goh. as he demonstrated the use of a new Google device.

New features like interactive games and digital devices not only help to keep the centre relevant but more importantly, also offer a glimpse of how eldercare centres can navigate a manpower crunch that will only worsen with time.

Eldercare centres serve the so­cial and increasingly health needs of the elderly. These include activity centres where se­niors living in their vicinity can drop by in the clay to interact with other seniors as well as take part in exercises, mahjong and games.

Eldercare centres will play an increasingly important role in the new preventive health strategy with their members set to double to 220 by 2025. Starting from May last year, senior activity centres, senior care centres and active ageing hubs have been transitioning to a new eldercare model. The transition is set to be completed in 2024. Under the new model, the Government wants these centres to progressively feature the full suite of ABC services (active ageing, be­ friending and care referrals) and to each serve 1,000 to 4,000 elderly residents eventually. These are numbers that are way above what the centres are used to.

Mr Andy Lee Teik Yhong, divisional director of Thye Hua Kwan Moral Charities· (THKMC) Home Care Services and Home Help Services, said that before the pan­demic, its centres used to each serve just 300 to 500 people. Now, some centres are serving up to 700 seniors.

The charity has 15 eldercare centres, and three more will be ready soon. The centres’ chal­lenges include the lack of digital adoption and trained manpower in the face of rising demand.

To address the challenges, Mr Lee is looking to set up a digitalised booking system at the centres by the year end so that seniors can go online to book an activity or a service such as a flu jab. For THKMC’s Beo Crescent centre, the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC) linked it with three partners in phases, as part of a pilot project that started last year.

AIC’s deputy chief executive officer Noel Cheah said: “We worked with Ikea for space management and senior-friendly furnishings. We partnered Google for technological solutions that are appropriate for seniors, (and) created a virtual play­ ground with support from SymA­sia-Yeo Family Foundation.”

Staff at the centre often spend a lot of time translating letters for seniors. To address this, Mr Cheah said it installed the Google Lens app in tablets. The app allows seniors to snap a photo of a letter and get it translated into the desired language.

He said the Beo Crescent area was picked because it has a large population of seniors from rental and non-rental HDB flats. At Lions Befrienders, which runs 10 active ageing centres, ex­executive director Karen Wee said that prior to May last year, its cen­tres focused mostly on the social needs of residents in rental flats.

Now. they have to cater to the needs of residents in rental flats. Now, they have to cater to the health and social needs of all seniors in their vicinity. This is to enable seniors to age in place or at home, instead of in a nursing home, she said.

The number of seniors in the service boundary of each of its centres has risen by 10 to 20 times, which would mean scal­ing the centre’s manpower by at least10 times, she said. “But this is not possible and very costly, so we have to use a lot of technol­ogy. We also need more seniors to step up to use more technology, and to help other seniors.”

THKMC’s Mr Lee said that the charity is also redesigning jobs and upskilling the abilities of cur­rent staff to get around man­power challenges. “Hiring more and more people is not sustainable. Our workforce is shrinking while people are living longer,” he added. Furthermore, there is strong competition for foreign staff, particularly nurses, who are in short supply, he said.

To add to its pool of 11 nurses, THKMC plans to send its staff for nursing training. Mr Lee said its Home Care Services has 140 staff with a nursing background, many of whom have nursing experience in their home country but lack the quali­fications to be a nurse here.

He said all its centres will eventually have a private space for seniors to do teleconsultations. Also, to serve more people, the centres can no longer focus just on centre-based activities such as mahjong or karaoke sessions, he said. “Now, we are also looking at creating larger­ scale events, like taiji classes at a nearby park,” he said.

At NTUC Health, which has 37 facilities for the elderly, including 11 that have transitioned to the new eldercare model, volunteers are being tapped to do some tasks. Dr Goh Siew Hor, its head of clinical services and residential care, said that in the mid- to longer term, it plans to raise productivity through tech­nology, redesign jobs and attract more locals to the sector.

For Mr Goh, the retiree at Beo Crescent centre, the facility is where he meets his friends to ex­ercise, sing karaoke or chat. He is single and used to be a care­ giver to his younger brother. Af­ ter Mr Goh’s brother died last December, he fell into a depressive bout. He said going to the centre helped get him out of that low point in his life.

Joyce Teo

Senior Health Correspeondent

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