It was a regular, sunny Wednesday morning in the foyer outside the Tzu Chi SEEN (Seniors Engagement & Enabling Node) at Nanyang. A group of more than 30 seniors could be seen moving their bodies in tandem to iconic Cantopop singer Sally Yeh’s classic, “Walk Gracefully Once”. While it was still relatively early at 10am, this group of seniors had already been working out for the past hour, with beads of perspiration on their foreheads and slightly drenched backs clearly visible. This was all part of the Healthy Ageing Promotion Programme for You (HAPPY) exercise, a basic workout routine meant to help the elderly improve their agility, balance and cardiovascular fitness.
Standing at the front, enthusiastically leading the crowd of seniors through the exercise routine, was a woman with short, slightly greying hair. She was 68-year-old Tzu Chi volunteer Ong Bee Lian. Every Wednesday, she would be in charge of leading the HAPPY exercise together with another SEEN staff. Watching her expertly demonstrate the exercise routines to the seniors, one might think she had been doing this for many years. But in fact, she only started taking on this voluntary role around two to three years ago.
Having been introduced to Tzu Chi in 2019 by a fellow volunteer, Mdm Ong first started participating and helping with SEEN activities, such as making handicrafts, keychains and mooncakes. She soon got involved with the HAPPY exercise as a participant herself. During the sessions, she would be more than a mere participant, helping to guide and demonstrate to seniors who had trouble keeping up.
With her leadership abilities evident, she was subsequently recommended by SEEN staff to take on a more significant role. This would involve attending the HAPPY exercise trainer course and returning to lead the seniors after obtaining the certification.
Encouraging seniors to be more active by taking on a bigger role through volunteerism was one of SEEN’s key objectives and Mdm Ong was certainly ready for this next step. Her situation was considered rare, as Tzu Chi would usually send their full-time staff for the course. The average age of course attendees was also lower than her, with most in their 40s and 50s. But she was not daunted and jumped at the opportunity to pick up new skills and knowledge.
“My personality is such that I like teaching people and leadership roles. I just want to help and encourage the seniors as some might feel shy and reject learning,” shared Mdm Ong, who was previously a tax officer for 43 years and possessed a certain level of experience managing people at work.
Getting Her Certification
And over a month, she went through a series of programmes as part of the training course jointly organised by the National University Health System (NUHS) and the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC). During the course, some segments included theory training, attachments to community centres to observe other trainers and practical assessments.
With her drive and passion, Mdm Ong comfortably completed the course and was officially certified as a HAPPY trainer. Given her age, one might think that taking a course and leading fellow seniors would be the last thing on her mind. But it was something that she had great motivation for.
“Being a senior doesn’t mean you can’t do anything. If you feel like you are old, you will be old. I want to maintain a positive mentality instead of restricting myself due to age.” Mdm Ong said.
“I’m happiest when I can take part in activities. Thus, I would always encourage the seniors to be active. If they cannot take care of themselves, they will be a burden to others.”
With her inkling to incorporate variation and new ideas into the HAPPY exercise, such as dances and songs that seniors resonate with, many have found attending her sessions a breath of fresh air. Her meticulous and conscientious manner of conducting them has also struck a chord with her regular attendees. They would affectionately refer to her as “teacher” despite being around the same age.
Shared Mdm Chan Pek Kin, a senior who regularly attends the HAPPY exercise sessions: “Teacher Bee Lian teaches very well, and from her, I learnt how to be patient. For those who had trouble following the steps, she would guide us slowly even though she has to constantly repeat herself.”
Fellow senior Mdm Chew Siam Gek added: “She is very active and puts in great effort teaching us. More seniors should follow her example, where you can help others and feel happy and healthy at the same time.”
An Inspiration for People Around
The participating seniors were not the only ones left inspired by Mdm Ong’s passion for learning and serving. SEEN staff Takalah Tan, who would partner with Mdm Ong in leading part of the weekly sessions, felt that she was an exemplary role model whom seniors should try to emulate.
“In her, I see a great sense of selflessness. She is doing it because she wants to help the elderly. She will find ways to introduce new elements into the programme, which she does with a lot of earnestness and zest,” explained Mr Tan.
“She is showing the elderly that at her age, she is still coming forward to lead. Perhaps others can be inspired to do the same and be the lighted beacon for others. Because in this estate, there are still many elderly staying at home and not doing much.”
Heading into their golden years, it is not uncommon for seniors to feel a loss of self-worth and purpose, with retirement from the workforce and their children all grown up. The prevalence of depression among the elderly in Singapore is around 5.5%, based on the Well-being of the Singapore Elderly (WiSE) 2021 study conducted by the Institute of Mental Health.
Mdm Ong herself retired recently in 2019 after working for decades, and she could have quite easily fallen into the dark hole of depression, just like some other seniors when they leave the workforce. Instead, she remained positive, playing a key role in helping fellow seniors stay active, in the process finding a new direction in life. With Singapore’s ageing population, where almost one in four Singaporeans will be over 65 by 2030, the hope is that there will be many more like her stepping forward to not only take charge of their own lives but to inspire others too.