October 21, 2020
Photo by: Caroline Chia | Words by: Hoo Xin Lin

(Photo above) To help lonely and isolated seniors during the Circuit Breaker, Ms Eleanor Yap, founder of e-magazine Ageless Online, set up Project BUDDY to connect seniors with people who could provide a listening ear.

When Ms Eleanor Yap started befriender initiative, Project BUDDY, during the Circuit Breaker, she expected no more than 10 volunteers. 

However when word about her project got out, more than 170 people came forward to provide a listening ear and engage with over 80 seniors who were struggling with the anxiety and loneliness that came with the lockdown.

“If I was lonely [during the Circuit Breaker], can you imagine how people who are older could be lonely? Even if you are usually active, you can’t be active anymore,” said the 51-year-old. “It’s very difficult for them.”

“We don’t often celebrate seniors. They have so many amazing stories. When you tell their stories, people understand and they gain empathy. They gain respect and perspective.”

Ms Yap is the spirited founder of e-magazine, Ageless Online – a free online publication that celebrates seniors and curates information specific to their needs and interests. Since starting the e-magazine in 2009, she has branched out to start various creative initiatives that address the needs of seniors.

“We don’t often celebrate seniors. They have so many amazing stories. When you tell their stories, people understand and they gain empathy. They gain respect and perspective,” she said.

The lockdown, however, made her realise that she needed to support seniors in a very different way.

Hearing the seniors out during lockdown

Ms Yap sprang into action, seeking out seniors who would appreciate a listening ear, then pairing them with someone, of any age, who would be willing to call them weekly.

While she initially only knew five such seniors, Ms Yap was able to reach out to more with the help of the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC), who supported the initiative by referring seniors from their database. U 3rd Age (University of the Third Age), an initiative that supports the continued learning of seniors, also lent a hand by helping with administrative work such as matching seniors and volunteers based on their indicated preferences. 

Volunteers who were successfully matched were tasked with a very simple job – make a phone call at the same time each week to check in with seniors and chat. To ease volunteers into the process, conversation starter suggestions were provided and volunteers were asked to share their feedback at the end of every call so that Ms Yap and her team could support them. 

“A young woman did a 47-page tutorial just to help her buddy learn to use WhatsApp. Some delivered food to [the seniors]. One lady sent a hamper to someone who was hospitalised. I didn’t even ask them to do that.”

Many volunteers went above and beyond to help the seniors, and till today Ms Yap stands amazed by the stories that have emerged from the simple act of connecting people.

Beaming, she recalls: “A young woman did a 47-page tutorial just to help her buddy learn to use WhatsApp. Some delivered food to [the seniors]. One lady sent a hamper to someone who was hospitalised. I didn’t even ask them to do that.”

On the seniors’ end, she has observed firsthand the effect that the calls have had. 

“My uncle (part of Project BUDDY) has dementia. He was paired with two volunteers and he looks forward to talking to them,” she said. “He is thankful that they are so patient with him, listening to his same stories over and over again. They help keep him occupied and engaged when he is at home the whole day.

“My sister, Jacqueline, was matched with someone (senior, Mdm Wong) who does pottery as a hobby,” said Ms Yap. After bonding with Mdm Wong, Jacqueline supported her when she had an exhibition of her artwork at the Visual Arts Centre in late August. 

“Now, Jacqueline has started taking classes [in pottery], and she’s dragged me along to join her.”

Advocating for friendships between the young and old 

Ms Yap’s journey as an advocate for seniors began when she was tasked to run a senior’s magazine back in the year 2000 — when she was in her 30s. She was drawn to the richness of their stories and has learnt a lot from them over the years.

“The seniors have done so much for Singapore, but they feel that they’re thrown to the curb because they’re a certain age. I want to return value to seniors. This is my way of giving back.”

As the country continues to open up and it becomes safer for seniors to meet in groups, Ms Yap has bigger plans and is looking forward to bringing the young and old together in person. 

“The seniors have done so much for Singapore, but they feel that they’re thrown to the curb because they’re a certain age. I want to return value to the seniors. This is my way of giving back.”

She is looking to restart Makan with Seniors, another initiative that invites youths and seniors to befriend each other over a meal.

By facilitating intergenerational conversations, Ms Yap hopes to break down the misconceptions that the two generations have of each other. Youths can understand their parents better and think more deeply about what it means to age, while seniors can expand their social circle to include younger persons who can be their friends too. 

As Ms Yap shifts focus to Makan with Seniors, she is planning to close Project BUDDY soon. But she hopes that the relationships formed can continue to thrive.

“Don’t look at it as a commitment anymore because it has become a friendship,” she says. “Wouldn’t you normally just call friends, and say, ‘Hey, how are you doing? How’s it going?’”

To Ms Yap, friendship is the key to creating a more caring and responsible community, and invites others to connect with the people around them.

“In a lot of ways, the community is the answer to a lot of ageing issues. Because sometimes you just cannot manage [alone]. But I think if we all pitch in, then we can manage.”

“I would love to see others reach out to their own communities. I am happy to teach people how to hold their own iterations of my projects if they would like to do so,” she adds.

“It’s really quite amazing. How, just by caring, you can make such a difference,” she says. “In a lot of ways, the community is the answer to a lot of ageing issues. Because sometimes you just cannot manage [alone]. But I think if we all pitch in, then we can manage.”

Find out how you too can celebrate seniors and support Ms Eleanor Yap and her initiatives at Ageless Online.

The Storytellers

  • Caroline loves photography and trekking, and never turns down a trip to the mountains.

  • Xin Lin hopes to always be in awe of the beauty that this world has to offer. When in need of a reminder, she picks up yet another short-lived hobby or resorts to reading the dramatic descriptions on tea labels.

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