Social interaction keeps seniors healthy as they age

  • Seniors
  • Friday, 20 Sep 2019

Ping pong helps the SBJA seniors stay fit and alert. AZMAN GHANI / The Star

They train three times a week without fail and have even invested in a ping pong training robot to help improve their game. The senior citizens at the Subang Jaya Buddhist Association (SJBA) aren’t gearing up for any competition; they’re just determined to stay fit and keep their minds alert, post-retirement.

And ping pong, they claim with certainty, is exactly what they need. “It’s not a simple game to play and definitely not an easy one to master, what with the spin shots, smashes and all that,” shares retired engineer Ng Swee Kong, 70.

“We certainly get a good workout and it has improved our endurance, without us having to run about too much. Ping pong also improves hand-eye coordination and stimulates mental alertness. We just have a lot of fun.”

There are about 20 or so seniors who show up for the three-hour table tennis sessions held on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. A few of them, like Ng’s wife Huang Looi, 63, and Evelyn See, 72, used to play the game as youngsters and help the others out with their form and technique.

Occasionally, they have a coach who gives them pointers. Mostly, they are in it for the adrenaline rush and fellowship.

A former school and state ping pong player, Huang Looi helps the others with their game.

“Some of us have difficulties moving about but once we pick up our paddles, we are focused on our game. By the end of our sessions, we’re drenched in sweat and limping out of the hall. But we keep coming back!” says Teh Seok Im, 67.

Ping pong is just one of the many activities the Association’s senior citizen’s group, called the Fellowship of the Wise, partake in. There’s also line dancing (FOW) and tai chi as well as classes in calligraphy, Chinese brush painting and sewing.

The group is also thinking about setting up a choir since “everybody enjoys karaoke”.

The seniors’ group was formed about two years ago to cater for the ever-growing senior population in Subang Jaya and, in particular, the ageing members of SJBA, many of whom are empty nesters.

“We came to know that some of our seniors were lonely, depressed and unhappy and we realised we needed to do something to look after our own well-being,” explains retiree Wang Hwee Beng, 68.

Line dancing doesn't just work their body but also their mind as the seniors have to remember the steps to their different dance numbers.

“With the support of a team of doctors and researchers from Universiti Malaya, we now have a spectrum of wholesome activities for our seniors. Our programme is quite holistic and enhances all aspects of our well-being – physical, mental, social, and because we are part of the Buddhist Association, we also have meditation, chanting sessions and wisdom talks to cater for our spiritual well-being.

“We also have community service activities. Basically, our activities are built around the Buddhist values that we practise such as dana (generosity) and sila (morality),”

Lonely no more 

The biggest draw to joining the activities, says retiree Lau Yew Beng, 70, is being able to “get out of the house” and socialise with like-minded peers.

“I am a social animal and now that I’m retired, it’s just my wife and I at home. If not for these activities, we’d be staring at each other and the four walls all day,” says Lau, with a wide smile.

The SJBA seniors even have an attendance log for their ping pong sessions, says Ng.

The camaraderie and fellowship with the other seniors in the group is perhaps what matters the most to Lau and the others in the FOW. “The teh tarik sessions after our activities are a must. We just relax and share jokes and laugh and have a good time.” Lau and his peers have actually got it right.

In the last decade, a tide of international research has called attention to the impact of loneliness and social isolation on the health, well-being and mortality of seniors.

It turns out that loneliness and social isolation are two of the biggest risk factors for death among the elderly, even more than being overweight or sedentary, and just as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness and social isolation can cause depression, mental health problems, and physical illness among the elderly.

In fact, researchers from Brigham Young University in the US found that the risk of death for lonely people is between 30% and 60% more than those with healthy social relationships.

In Malaysia, studies have shown that loneliness among seniors has resulted in depression, hypertension and a poorer quality of life, notes doctoral researcher T A Madeehah who is from the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia.

Being socially connected has a major influence on an older person’s health, says Dr Tan. Filepic

“My study focused on older adults in Kuala Pilah and I found that though not many of these seniors were living alone, being connected with family and friends ... knowing what was going on with family and friends, interacting and being involved with them directly affected their quality of life.

“Having someone to talk to and listen to them was important to them,” says Madeehah, who is doing her research with Universiti Malaya’s Prevent Elder Abuse and Neglect Initiative.

While loneliness and social isolation aren’t just an affliction of the aged, older adults are more vulnerable, for various reasons such as the death of a spouse, children who have migrated or moved away or even retirement, which brings with it the sudden loss of a social network.

Other factors could be limitations that are brought on by chronic illness, mobility issues, lack of transportation, hearing loss and so on. “Being socially connected has a major influence on an older person’s health,” says Universiti Malaya Medical Centre consultant geriatrician Prof Dr Tan Maw Pin.

“The odds are often stacked against older people as they age, seniors typically lose their peers through illness and disease or increased disability from the accumulation of medical conditions that come with age.

“In addition, retirement is also often associated with the reduction in income and seniors become dependent on their adult children’s contributions,” she says.

Although there is strong evidence linking social isolation with poor health, there isn’t much literature on whether social participation can improve health or reverse the effects of isolation.

The biggest pay off from their senior citizen club has been the fellowship among members. With all their activities, the seniors don't feel lonely or unhappy.

There certainly isn’t much research on the subject in the region, which is something that Tan and her peers, Fellow in community engagement and psychology lecturer at the International Medical University Dr Teoh Gaik Kin and senior lecturer from UM’s nursing department Dr Chong Mei Chan wanted to address.

For the SJBA seniors, coming together as a community has been purposeful. “It has allowed us to carry on living our lives with dignity,” says SJBA president Chim Siew Choon, 61.

“We feel a sense of importance because we can still serve our association and community instead of being served by others. It enhances our self-worth and enables us to live the golden years of our lives with purpose and value. As we go from our 60s and 70s into our 80s and 90s, our programmes will have to change, probably. We can’t be jumping around playing ping pong.”

“We will be playing chess!” adds Teh.

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