December 6, 2020
Photos and words by: Serene Goh
(Photo above) Volunteers help set up mobile phones for seniors who face loneliness and isolation without this integral device in Singapore today.
For more than 80 percent of Singapore residents, social isolation over the long months of the Circuit Breaker could be salved by connecting virtually via mobile phones.
The situation was different for Mr Poh Kim Kah, 73, who belongs to another set of statistics — those uncontactable over mobile telephony.
He doesn’t have a landline in his Chai Chee rental flat, let alone a smartphone. With no other way to communicate during the lockdown, he would wheel himself down to the residents centre for updates or to seek help each day.
That level of social isolation moved 19-year-old Zhang Yuge, who’d read about how many vulnerable elderly had been driven to suicide during the Circuit Breaker.
The junior college student pointed out that as an overseas student here, she is no stranger to loneliness. She is an only child far from her hometown, Zhejiang, China, residing at the Hwa Chong Institution Boarding School preparing to sit her A Level exams.
“I’ve been here for about four years,” said the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China scholar. “I experience loneliness a lot. We relate to the feeling and wanted to help the seniors.”
(Above) It’s mid-morning as Chai Chee’s elderly residents, previously uncontactable, get help setting up their smartphones from Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA).
She reached out to her juniors, and about seven of them came up with Project Coconut — “it sounds like co-connect and also we like coconuts” — to distribute free smartphones to seniors who receive financial assistance. They are Ms Ma Jing and Ms Grace Kong, both 17; Ms Huang Ziyue and Ms Huang Ziru, 18; and Ms Hang Yizhou, 18.
Knowing firsthand what it was like to be stuck in boarding school or homes during the Circuit Breaker with only digital devices to connect with others, they raised $30,000 to purchase simple phones for this group in order to gird them with technology.
As they began working with the Lions Befrienders (LB) to shape up distribution plans, they set to work rallying donations from fellow students and their parents, the Nanyang Girls’ High School Parent Support Group, Hwa Chong Institution Alumni Association and Hwa Chong Junior College Alumni Association, as well as the Zhejiang Entrepreneurs Association. They also successfully applied for the Oscar@sg fund, launched by the Temasek Trust to support ground-up initiatives that respond to community needs in Singapore as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ms Hang, leader of the Coconut team, said: “The Lions Befrienders can check in with seniors and ensure their well-being, and seniors can also contact their family and friends, hopefully alleviating their anxiety.”
(Above) Getting font sizes enlarged and language settings right is just the first step, as recipients of Project Coconut — whose average age is about 76 — will continue to get help learning to become digitally connected.
The total amount funded the co-payment portion of smartphones and year-long mobile plans for vulnerable seniors (of about $100 per senior), under Infocomm Media Development Authority’s (IMDA) Mobile Access for Seniors scheme.
In between her Chemistry and Physics A Level papers, Ms Zhang, together with the rest of Project Coconut, went to Chai Chee to meet the beneficiaries of their months-long initiative at a distribution round.
Working with LB, about 206 phones have gone to beneficiaries so far, with another 95 to go. Additionally, LB activated community partners to manage deployment and mobilisation logistics, including Senior Activity Centres. Through December, the HCI students also plan to continue their project as weekly volunteer coaches to help seniors learn to use their digital devices.
“With the phones, we can get in touch with seniors instantly to find out how they are coping. They can also reach out to us if they need any form of assistance or during times of emergency.”
Ms Justina Teo, assistant director, Lions Befrienders’ Special Projects & Development, Befriending Services
At the Chai Chee site, LB’s staff helped with crowd control and registration, while volunteers from IMDA helped to activate and familiarise them with their devices, changing language settings and enlarging font sizes.
Ms Justina Teo, assistant director of LB’s Special Projects & Development, Befriending Services, said the most challenging hurdle during the lockdown months was being unable to contact seniors who had no phones, and not being permitted to visit them.
“With the phones, we can get in touch with seniors instantly to find out how they are coping. They can also reach out to us if they need any form of assistance or during times of emergency,” she said. “It will also enable them to connect with friends and family members which will alleviate loneliness since they are unable to go out.”
After her big exams, Ms Zhang looks forward to seeing her grandparents in person back in China. Here in Singapore, Mr Poh, no longer without means of communication, grinned as he wheeled away with his new smartphone, saying in Mandarin: “The first person I’m going to call is my sister.”