Still spreading cheer and comfort after 30 years of engaging seniors

“EACH TIME I visit the seniors and see how peaceful and contented they live, I feel humbled,” says Mr Soh Swee Kiat, himself already 68 and having spent three decades as a befriender.

And so, on a bright Thursday morning, Mr Soh is there at Merpati Road in MacPherson Estate with another befriender, Chilly Chen, 34, visiting 75-year-old Madam Lim Chin Huay and 78-year-old Ng Ah Ngow, both residents of the one-room apartment blocks there.

In the garden patch of the playground at the foot of the block, while Chilly takes out a blood-pressure
(BP) measurement kit to check Mdm Lim’s BP (Chilly works as a senior staff nurse), Swee Kiat chats with the former cleaning lady who is still able to walk to the market each day to buy groceries.

Chilly, who has just completed her shift at the Singapore General Hospital, still finds the time and energy to accompany Swee Kiat to visit these seniors. “Each fortnight, we visit eight old folks living in the three blocks here,” says Swee Kiat. “This is a neighbourhood where residents feel peaceful and contented.”

Satisfied with Mdm Lim’s BP, the two befrienders then ride the lift up to visit Mr Ng, a retired lorry driver and cobbler. In the hall is a bicycle which he uses to travel. “My legs are weak now and without the bike, I can’t travel far,” he explains. Still looking spry and trim, Mr Ng talks about his young days as a lorry driver transporting and also loading and unloading goods, while Chilly puts the BP measuring wrap on his upper arm.

“Mr Soh and Chilly come to my house to visit me,” he says with delight. The wall in his hall is cluttered with photos, some showing a youthful Mr Ng in the 1970s. There’s also a large portrait photo of him, printed in high quality paper. “This photo will go to the front of the hearse during my funeral,” he explains with a measure of glee, mentioning a charity group that provides free portrait shooting and prints for old folks.

At 55, Mr Ng retired and then in a fit of enthusiasm learnt to repair shoes. For a number of years he made a decent living as a cobbler with a box stall in a market square, but now he’s completely retired. He has never been married, so he lives alone, with hardly a visitor except the befrienders.

In Singapore, there’re about 30,000 folks like Mr Ng, relatively healthy and living on their own with few kin or friends. Swee Kiat, Chilly and others from the Lions Befrienders, comprise a network of volunteers who care enough to visit them, bring them snacks, read and explain letters from the government, and even help in minor fixtures in the house.

“I volunteered as a befriender almost 30 years ago,” says Swee Kiat. “In those days the befriending
service was run by the then Ministry of Community Development. Some officials from the ministry came to Grace Baptist Church at Mattar Road, where I am still a member, to give a talk and to ask for volunteers. So I signed up, being the only one from the church.”

Recollecting his long history of service and engagement with seniors, he says he has befriended more than a dozen seniors, including two Malay families. Some of them have since passed away.

Swee Kiat who has since retired from full-time human resource management more than a decade ago,
once said that visiting and engaging with the seniors was not a chore. “Sometimes we ourselves spend weekends window-shopping, forgetting that the same one or two hours, if spent with these people, can mean so much to them,” he said.

And like most of the old folks who are still trim and alert, Swee Kiat keeps himself physically and mentally active. “Every day, I read the Bible. I also continue to read management books, and I take part in the Toastmasters Club of Singapore. As a Toastmaster, I am required not only to deliver speeches, but also to act as a judge at speech contests and to evaluate other members’ speeches.”

He mentions one good practice in public speaking that he enjoys doing. Select a historic speech, such as the 1963 “I have a dream” speech by Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., and then read out the same text as if you were the original speaker yourself. This practice is known as interpretative reading, Swee Kiat explains.

It was also at the Toastmasters Club that Chilly met Swee Kiat who introduced her to the Lions Befrienders.

“I had been looking for volunteering opportunities on a long-term basis, but could not find one that
I would enjoy going back until I got to know Lions Befrienders,” she says. “I was introduced to the organisation by Mr Soh, who was my mentor in the Toastmasters Club of Singapore. Seeing his positive traits, his dedication and his ‘not expecting anything in return’ attitude, I decided to become a befriender, too. I now find that it gives me an avenue to bond with the seniors in the community.”

For both of them, being a befriender has left a strong impression on their hearts. Swee Kiat says: “Despite their low income and the lack of material comfort, the seniors live peaceful, placid lives. And when they know I’m coming to visit them, they would even leave the main door open for me.”

Text & photo by Francis Chin