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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

Society

Papering over old people’s needs

When I was updating my mother’s bank passbook at an ATM last week, an old lady in a wheelchair behind me in the queue asked me to do the same for her. She didn’t want to bother her children to run this errand for her, she said. When I was done with it, another old lady in the queue asked me to withdraw some money for her from her bank account. I did so, after assiduously turning away as she painstakingly tapped her PIN number on the keyboard. I am used to this, as I am sure younger people are when they queue at a heartland ATM. 

Like my mother, elderly people want control over their finances. It is something they have managed all their lives – until technology started interfering. They went to the 7/11 to pay bills, wrote cheques or queued at the bank. Every “bank’’ letter delivered to the home is perused carefully to see if the GIRO payments are correct. Not for them online banking or the use of a smartphone (if they have one) to buy stuff. Going paperless is a nightmare for them as they lack the “black-and-white’’ that is for them the guarantee that their money is safe. 

Slowly over the years, I have had to take over control of the household finances simply because my mother is no longer ambulant. And, of course, I choose the most convenient method – online. But it is frustrating for her not to know what the household electricity bill amounts to every month. When I print out a hard copy for her, she asks why I am wasting paper as  the power supplier should be sending the invoice to the mailbox (physical). 

When PUB wrote to her a couple of months ago to say that  it would now go paperless, my mother was thrown into a tizzy. But the water company gave customers an option to stick to paper, if they tapped on something on the smartphone. I did so for my mother. 

When the polyclinic decided to do video-calls instead of face-to-face consultations because of the Covid-19 outbreak, my mother was worried about a “technical’’ breakdown even though I was with her all the time. And now that online food deliveries are becoming the norm, she says she would starve at home if no one was with her. 

You might say that my mother, who is 78, should “get on with the programme’’ and go digital. She tried. She took advantage of the various free digital programmes for seniors in an effort to conquer her smartphone. Despite the patience of “ambassadors’’, she is still all thumbs, worried that pressing the wrong button would render the whole smartphone useless. She prefers a dumb phone. Cashless payment? She wants a receipt.

It is the same for the television remote control device which allows her access to everything from Netflix and Disney to HBO channels and YouTube. So she is more often than not watching the free-to-air channels because pressing the wrong button would “spoil’’ the television. 

I speak for her when I say she is feeling alienated and helpless with every new announcement that has to do with digitalisation. I wonder how the elderly who do not have children to guide them, cope. For the children, it is about taking time off to run errands – or taking over the functions. At the very least, it is about teaching them to handle gadgets while making them feel less ignorant, hopeless and helpless. 

I know how important it is for people to embrace technology which is supposed to raise your quality of life. It is true for most, except the elderly. Technology makes their world smaller, not bigger. 

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When an SGX letter came a few weeks ago announcing that it will go paperless and levy a fee for anyone who wanted a hard copy of their statement, my mother threw a fit. She is now convinced that nobody cares for people like her who aren’t tech-savvy nor well-educated. I try to placate her by telling her she has her Pioneer Generation card. 

I have read the letters in the ST Forum pages decrying the SGX move which some people say amounts to greenwashing. It wants to penalise those who will not move to a paperless regime, forgetting that it makes a lot of savings from those who do. I am now wondering how to close her CDP account which has a few hundred dollars courtesy of some very, very old SingTel shares that were given out to all Singaporeans.

Can’t an exception be made for older people, say, those above 65 or 70? Must we run over everyone in the drive to go paperless or cashless? How many trees would we save and how does this compare to securing he peace of mind of our elderly folk?

The more savvy elderly will probably sniff at such technological predicaments that their less educated peers face. And the not-so-young are probably thanking their lucky stars to have caught the technological wave before their own memory banks are full. 

But there is one barrier that even the technologically savvy will have to face sooner or later – the physical barriers. 

Policy-wise, there has been a greater focus on the needs of the elderly at home – with ramps outside doors and grab handles. The entire Lift Upgrading Programme with lifts that stop at every floor is an acknowledgement that some elderly people are trapped in their homes because taking even one step up or down can result in pain. Outside the home, buses and MRT trains can now take the disabled on board. 

What, however, is in-between the home and the nearest bus stop? It is the neighbourhood. 

I believe the neighbourhood shops, banks, wet markets and supermarkets are designed for the maximum number of ambulant customers and the maximum display of products. 

When reports surface about cluttered corridors and pavements, the focus tends to be on how they could be fire hazards, rather than a barrier for the wheelchair-bound and those on Personal Mobility Aids. Such elderly persons have to take the longer way to get somewhere or resort to using the road when their route is blocked. I know this. My mother uses a PMA and I act as her advance scout. 

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Except for the dialysis centre (which she doesn’t need to go to), not a single shop in my neighbourhood is fitted for the disabled to venture into, not even medical clinics much less the minimart or the hair-dresser. I have had minor heart attacks pushing up a heavy-laden wheelchair over a couple of steps, and endured stares when my mother’s PMA tries to get through the crowded aisles to reach the dry goods store in the wet market. The elderly are seen as an inconvenience and themselves a barrier to free movement. 

Sure, the less ambulent could stay at home. And I believe that many exercise this “choice’’ because it is just too difficult to get around to do something more useful besides taking in the scenery. 

Despite the buzz over going digital, there are still some transactions that require face-to-face service, especially for banks. It is not enough that my mother is right outside the bank with her identity card and all her documents. She has to enter the hallowed surroundings because of “bank policy’’ and “security’’ reasons, as I was told at two banks earlier this week. I wonder if the bank will be liable if she tumbles off her scooter while negotiating the steps. I wonder what sort of strain it puts on bank tellers to take a few steps to the entrance to verify that she is who she says she is. Some people have suggested that I get a Power of Attorney to act for my mother, but this is beside the point. She is perfectly capable of handling her finances; she just cannot walk steadily. 

I read the news reports on the revitalisation of the HDB shops with much interest. There is the usual fuss about the types and range of shops that would make a neighbourhood vibrant. I humbly suggest that the HDB start with auditing the elderly-friendliness of the neighbourhood to realise the word. “inclusive”. Older folk will be grateful if aisles are wider, walkways are smoother and shops have slopes that allow them safe entry. 

The older people who are not technologically-savvy will, to put it bluntly, die off and the rest of us can happily go paperless and cashless.

But all of us will get old one day and our bones will start to fail us. I doubt even the most digital-savvy thinks it’s okay to do everything at home online all the time, like work, order food, do banking, pay bills. Especially if this is not by choice. 

Written By

An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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