Most of Madam Teek Mohmod's life has revolved around her family, especially caring for her parents towards the end of their lives.
The demands of keeping her household going meant she saw less and less of her friends. After her husband died last year, she found herself very much alone.
"I felt very lonely," said the housewife, 64, who has an adult son but lives alone in Yishun. "When I looked after my mother and father and all their expenses, it was very hard to go out and meet friends."
It was only after she was introduced to a "wellness kampung" for seniors in her neighbourhood that she made new friends, and began to feel less troubled. "When I'm here, my mood changes," she said.
Local research is finding that for seniors like Madam Teek, having a companion their own age makes a big difference to their health and mental well-being.
In a study of nearly 5,000 seniors, ageing expert Angelique Chan found that those living with their children, but without their spouses, were as lonely as those living on their own. A separate National Healthcare Group (NHG) study, published last year and involving 1,919 people, found older adults who felt isolated from their friends were more likely to develop depressive symptoms, compared with those who felt disconnected from family.
"It's about having a peer; having someone you can connect with," said Associate Professor Chan, who is executive director of the Centre for Ageing Research and Education in Duke-NUS Medical School.
She was involved in the Social Isolation, Health And Lifestyles Survey, which studied a group of elderly people for close to a decade from 2009.
It found that half of Singaporeans over 60 felt lonely some or most of the time. But those who lived with spouses, or with spouses and children, did not. "What children don't realise is the need for communication and connection," Prof Chan said, adding that employing a domestic helper does not typically provide the companionship seniors need.
"It may look like there's someone with them all day. But it might not be someone they can actually communicate with. Children may take care of their parents' physical needs but they are not providing for the psychosocial ones."
Geriatrician Wong Sweet Fun, chief transformation officer at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital and Yishun Health, said: "Friendships are the relationships we choose, resulting in feelings of autonomy, affirmation of self-worth and better integration into social networks and the wider community.
"On the other hand, family relationships are obligatory and can have a negative impact on health."
This can happen even if a senior has good family support, said Dr Wong, who is also deputy chairman of the medical board for population health at both organisations, which are part of NHG. In fact, too much support from their adult children may cause seniors to feel less competent, Dr Wong said.
Ageing experts said people should keep an eye out for symptoms of loneliness in elderly relatives. These could include withdrawing from conversations or not wanting to leave the house, said Ms Janice Chia, founder and managing director of the Ageing Asia Alliance.
She added that adult family members could also accompany seniors to new activities and introduce them to new friends. "Making new friends as we get older is very much like the first day of school all over again," she said. "The first step of facilitation is important."
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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