If you happen to be in the vicinity of Block 344 on Clementi Avenue 5 one morning, you might chance upon a group of seniors picking up trash. If you’re curious enough to stop to observe for a while, you’ll notice that this motley group of about 20 seniors of varying ages and personalities — a few in wheelchairs, a few with companions to help them move around — interact with the ease of long acquaintance, chatting and teasing each other like good friends.
Observe for a bit more, and you’ll see that picking up trash is really an excuse for the seniors to take a brisk morning walk around the neighbourhood, then head to one of the coffee shops nearby for a midmorning break of kopi or teh and snacks before the day’s activities commence.
“This walk takes place on alternate Wednesdays, but the group has taken to meeting almost every day,” says Mdm June Chen, the 68-year old volunteer at the Lions Befrienders Active Ageing Centre (AAC) nearby, who organised the activity.
“I thought it would be a good idea to give our seniors something to do and look forward to,” she says. “Lions Befrienders told me that if I take charge of it, then we can do the walk.”
June has a signup sheet with about 20 seniors on it, most of whom comprise her “regulars,” who often show up for every walk, though there may be one or two new attendees.
The walk always ends the same way: At a nearby coffee shop. “Stopping for coffee and snacks gives them a chance to catch their breath, to talk to each other and socialise,” she added, though the choice of which coffee shop to go to is not without some discussion. “Some will have a firm opinion and will be hurt if we don’t take their choice into consideration. To keep the peace, I told them we’d go to a different place each time, to give everyone a chance. That seems to satisfy them.”
Giving the regulars a choice also made them feel a sense of belonging and ownership for the walk, says June. “Do you know why this walk is so early? I originally set it at 8.30am, because I’m not a morning person and 8.30 seems early to me, but the seniors asked if we can move it earlier, so we did.” The fun walk now starts at 8am.
A natural people person
Dealing with groups of people with different needs and personalities comes easily for June, who used to be a Human Resources professional before she retired a few years ago. Becoming a volunteer at the AAC seems like a natural progression.
“I think it’s easy for me because I love doing this,” she says. “All my life, I’ve always loved being of service to others and becoming a volunteer was a good way to reach out to people.”
Her own volunteer story started much the same way — another volunteer reached out to her and asked her if she would like to join the AAC. “I said no, at first, because someone you don’t know knocks on your door, of course, you say no,” she laughs. “But later on, she managed to convince me to at least check it out.”
From that first contact, June progressed to joining in the activities and then volunteering. What changed? “I think it was a chair zumba class that made me become more involved. I remember the participants in that class were not really that enthusiastic. They were just half-heartedly waving their arms about,” she recalls. “So I went to the front and just started becoming more animated to get them to move more energetically,” she laughs.
Things progressed from there. “I think because I saw that they needed help. There were only four volunteers in the AAC and if one of the staff is busy or not available, then there will be many seniors who won’t be able to get the help they needed.”
“Also, I saw that many seniors would come here in the mornings and then have lunch, then go home and watch TV all afternoon. So I helped to organise activities for them in the afternoons, so they’re not just sitting around.” From there, June started helping out during registrations for activities, and when COVID-19 hit, she helped seniors with the notices they’d get on their phones.
June has become such an active volunteer that she has even roped in her husband, Joshua, to help. “My husband is a very introverted and private kind of person. But he will come down if I need help with big groups, like for instance during the walks, where there are 20 people who need my attention.”
When she’s not at the centre, June spends time with her family.
“For me, family comes first. My daughter is always reminding me that I should see my grandkids because they are growing up so fast, so I make time to see them. Sometimes, the centre will ring me up to ask if I could come over to help. But if I am doing something with the family, I will decline.”
Once a month, June goes travelling with her husband and some friends. “We love to travel and I love organising trips to places that we haven’t been. So every month, we make it a point to explore.”
But even then, she will usually think of the seniors under her care. “I would make sure to bring back some candies or biscuits for them to share at the centre.”
Volunteering is about patience and helping people
But most days, June is at the AAC, assisting seniors with their various concerns, like deciphering government forms and answering questions about their benefits. Good thing that June is also a Silver Generation Ambassador, so she can advise folks about government benefits and schemes, as well as go around the neighbourhood to reach out to homebound seniors.
“The seniors have different needs,” she explains. “Some would come down because they received a letter from the government about their CPF so I’ll read the letter and explain what it meant. Others will enquire about government benefits or activities or how to use their phones, for example.”
Other times, she helps during activities, such as partnering up with a senior for a board game — or helping input the answers on the computer during trivia quizzes. “One time, the question was, ‘Who made the first curry puff — Old Chang Kee or Polar?’ and they got very excited they knew the answer. So when I’m not around I make sure that one of the office staff will be on hand to help them with the computer.”
And many seniors will just come down because they need someone to talk to. “You have to have a lot of patience to be a volunteer. The seniors all have different personalities and some will demand more from you. One lady lives alone and has Alzheimer’s. She would come for our walks but would always forget to wear the shirt that they were issued to wear. She insists that we didn’t give her a shirt when we did.”
June has an easy way about her, which is probably why the seniors are drawn to her. “Another lady made it a point to tell me that she was offended that I ignored her when we passed each other in the neighbourhood. So now, every time I see her, I make sure to chat with her even for a bit.” June has a lot of anecdotes like these. For every challenging one, there are many inspiring ones, like “Mdm Soh, who joins my Wednesday walks. I enjoy talking to her because she’s funny and gives me advice on how I should treat my husband,” she laughs. “She’s very old school but she means well. She’s also very generous and usually brings cakes and biscuits for the group to have with their coffee.”
From her stories, it’s easy to see that June loves what she’s doing and thrives in being a volunteer — a sentiment that she doesn’t hesitate to share. “The Lions Befrienders once organised a simple lunch for us volunteers to thank us for our help. I spoke up and said that, for me, we should be thanking them for the opportunity to help. Growing old is a gift and the seniors always inspire me.”