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​Long-time MacPherson residents Mr Michael Ng and Ms Rosemary Lim are some of their neighbourhood’s strongest advocates for mental health support.

The two are part of a team of grassroots leaders who have received training on mental health including dementia awareness. With this knowledge and skills, they help to spread awareness of dementia among residents of MacPherson, which is a Dementia- Friendly Community (DFC).

Strong support networks are available for people with mental health conditions. These networks are led by like-minded residents, grassroots leaders, volunteers and various agencies, who work together to raise awareness and provide support to people with mental health conditions and their caregivers.

PERSONAL EXPERIENCE IN CAREGIVING​

Mr Ng is driven to do this by the experience of caring for his late father, who had dementia.

His father’s decline in memory and thinking skills often caused the old man, who was 90 at the time, to forget his way home.The elder Mr Ng loved to go out for breakfast in the mornings, but had gone missing four times. Says Mr Ng, “Even in his condition, he would still want to go out and would end up getting lost.”

Sometimes, a member of the public would take Mr Ng’s father to a police station. There, Mr Ng would be greeted by the heart-wrenching sight of his elderly father, shaken, dehydrated and wanting to go home. “At that time, not many people were aware of dementia. So the police were also at a loss as to how to help my father,” explains Mr Ng.

As one of the grassroots volunteers in his neighbourhood Active Ageing Committee (AAC), Mr Ng would share information about dementia with residents and businesses around the neighbourhood.

Similarly, his fellow MacPherson resident Ms Lim can relate to a caregiver’s challenges, as she had cared for a parent with dementia before. She leads efforts in MacPherson to encourage her fellow grassroots leaders to attend mental health training. This includes self-care, such as ways to improve mental wellness, which can also support the caregivers. “Dementia cannot be cured, but hopefully with initiatives like this in place, it can help to slow down the drastic effects of the condition and ultimately make a difference in the lives of these seniors and their loved ones,” she says.​

KAMPUNG SPIRIT AND TEAMWORK

Sometimes, grassroots leaders and volunteers may encounter complex cases involving residents with mental health conditions.

In Kembangan-Chai Chee (KCC), the KCC Social Team made up of grassroots leaders, volunteers and community partners go one step further. They form a Local Community Support Network (LCSN), and are trained to identify and support residents with mental health conditions and their caregivers.

The network brings different groups together such as grassroots leaders, volunteers, government agencies, social service agencies, mental health VWOs and restructured hospitals to leverage on each other’s expertise and resources.

Ms Susan Ang and Ms Helen Yong who are part of the KCC Social Team, feel this network gives them more support when they help other residents in the community. Ms Ang recalls an incident with a 60-year-old resident who shared with her that he was frequently hungry. Ms Ang was puzzled as lunch was delivered to his block daily, and he could just head downstairs to eat.

After talking to him further, she found out that he was actually afraid to leave his house as he believed that people would sneak in to steal his belongings.

Ms Ang shared this case with the KCC Social Team. The team then discussed ways to help him at the regular multi-agency meeting. Thanks to the intervention, the resident received help for his mental health condition and is faring much better today.

When asked why she volunteers,Ms Ang says, “I felt that the time was right for me to give back to society in a more active way.” Ms Yong adds, “I miss the days in a kampung when we looked out for each other. I hope to rebuild this ‘kampung spirit’ in KCC. By creating such a support network, it encourages people to look out for one another.”

“EYES AND EARS” ON THE GROUND

Social service agencies and hawkers can also play a vital role in the community.​

Take for example REACH Youth Powerhouse, a youth centre in a void deck in Hong Kah North. While the centre is designed for young people to hold activities and bond together, it is also a place that provides resources on mental health, such as information on dementia.

It is a Go-To Point. This means people who encounter seniors with dementia who have forgotten their way home can take the seniors to the centre. There, centre staff will help to locate the senior’s caregivers and reunite them.

Mr Joseph Rajagopal, 58, the Head of Senior and Auxiliary Services at REACH Community Services Society says, “Our staff and volunteers are also equipped with skills on how to care for and calm down a person with dementia. Our aim is to make their experience a positive one when they are brought to our centre.” Besides supporting the youth, the centre organises events for seniors a few times a week. The seniors who attend these activities are also taught to recognise the centre as a Go-To Point. This way, they can direct seniors who seem to need help to the centre.

Food stall owner, Mdm Tan Gek Cheng, 62, appreciates the effort being made to raise awareness of mental health conditions in the community.

Mdm Tan works at a coffeeshop in Hong Kah North. She recalled an incident where she had to help a domestic helper who realised the senior she was caring for was missing. The old woman had dementia, so the helper was frantic about where she could have gone.

“She was panicking and kept asking people around the vicinity if they had seen Ah Ma,” Mdm Tan recalls.

Despite Mdm Tan’s help, they did not manage to find the old woman. Fortunately, she was found unharmed later, further away from the neighbourhood. Mdm Tan shared that grassroots volunteers like Ms Alice Lim and other partners in the Hong Kah North DFC have been educating her and fellow food stall owners on the signs and symptoms of dementia.

“Now I know how to identify the signs of dementia, I won’t be at a loss,” says Mdm Tan.

“I will talk to him, see if anyone around knows who he is. And I know I can take him to the community centre nearby to help him find his caregiver.”​

This article was first published on NEXTSTEP Magazine, Year 2016, Issue 3. "AIC With You" is the new quarterly magazine on Community Care by the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC). Subscribe to AIC With You here.