Cheered on by peers, some participants have stepped out of their wheelchairs. And while many volunteers initially saw themselves as housewives with no special skills, they have surprised themselves with the impact they could make.
Tan Shi Hui, Executive of Population Health & Community Transformation at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, is not talking about a scene from a motivational movie, though the picture she paints is inspiring. She is talking about Singapore’s senior citizens who have found a sense of belonging through Share a Pot.
Share a Pot is a community-based initiative that supports the social, physical, and psychological well-being of the elderly in Singapore, managed by Shi Hui and her team from Khoo Teck Puat Hospital but operating at remote sites across the island.
Formed in 2015, Share a Pot aims to promote the nutrition and fitness of community-dwelling seniors. With Singapore’s population ageing at a rate second only to Japan, both government and non-government organisations are paying more attention to this demographic. By 2030, a quarter of the population is expected to be over the age of 65—the new retirement age by that year.
These efforts have also given rise to programmes that address seniors’ specific needs, such as socialising (which can get more difficult with age), exercise, and nutrition.
Bonding Over a Nutritious Pot of Soup
Share a Pot is a community-based and volunteer-run project that provides an environment for seniors to develop a sense of belonging through social activities, meals, and fitness activities among others. The project’s name is inspired by the tradition of family reunions over a communal pot of soup —an Asian experience Share a Pot reinvented to create a bond and a support system among its members. It’s a theme that older Singaporeans are familiar with and associate with warmth and “feel-good” moments.
Share a Pot’s mission is also centred on nutrition, as the lack of nutrition significantly leads to physical frailty among Singapore’s elderly. According to a 14-year study by researchers at the National University of Singapore, half of the country’s older population are frail. This problem is particularly prevalent among low-income seniors and those who are single, divorced, or widowed.
“Older persons often face an ‘empty nest’ after they retire,” explains Shi Hui, who is one of the community developers of Share a Pot. “Without companions to eat with, many of them have no motivation to cook for themselves, resorting to eating very simple and repetitive meals lacking in variety like biscuits or plain bread.”
At the same time, the stigma associated with ageing and frailty can be a barrier to community participation, which Shi Hui says creates a vicious cycle that only exacerbates seniors’ health conditions and isolation from society.
Rather than seeing frailty as an obstacle, Share a Pot creates solutions that allow the elderly to take ownership of the programme’s vision and goals.
“Though it is science-based, we de-medicalise the programme so participants are not seen as being ‘frail patients.’ This allows us to be a platform to celebrate caring and giving,” she adds.
A Community for Seniors, By Seniors
What makes Share a Pot unique is that elderly members themselves play an active role in building the community.
“Most of the volunteers are seniors themselves,” says Shi Hui. “The role of participant vs. volunteer is quite fluid, as even participants contribute to the programme by helping each other wash their bowls and setting up the (activity) space.”
Share a Pot also works with a network of organisations in Singapore involved in elderly care and community services, such as senior activity centres, residents’ committees, and nursing homes. Each partner serves as a Share a Pot site in their respective neighbourhoods. This setup is how many of Share a Pot’s members learned about the programme, with word-of-mouth reaching participants who typically live within 600 meters of a local site.
As of 2019, there were 1,758 participants and 177 senior volunteers registered across 32 sites.
Volunteer leaders in each neighbourhood take a hands-on approach to managing their respective communities, whether it’s by making decisions on what activities to organise or maintaining Share a Pot’s database. They’re also consulted on any developments concerning the direction and future of the programme.
“Typically, decisions relating to leadership succession are left to the individual volunteer groups, as they take ownership of their communities,” explains Shi Hui.
While all locations adhere to Share a Pot’s core structure, they’re also free to adapt the programme as they see fit, depending on the interests and needs of their respective communities. This allows them to do things such as roping in local heroes like tai-chi instructors, community gardeners, and market stall owners, thereby enabling the community to take pride in their contributions. This sustains and supports the programme.
“Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, the programme structure is also ‘incomplete’. The community participates in filling in the blanks, such as the recipe that will be cooked on a given week, the type of exercise to be done, and the games and social activities to be played. This allows them to take ownership of the programme at their site,” says Shi Hui.
In some locations, students partner with senior participants as volunteers, creating opportunities for intergenerational bonding. For instance, the Share a Pot kitchen in the north district is a joint effort by Woodlands Secondary School and Woodlands Health Campus (WHC), with support from the North West Community Development Council. The site is unique for being entirely led and managed by students.
“Many students commented that they were able to relate to seniors better after interacting with them through the programme,” shares Shi Hui.
At present, Share a Pot’s activities have had to be put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic. MOH (Ministry of Health) advisories concerning senior-centric activities. “However, a few of the communities have organised online meetups and group exercise sessions independently,” says Shi Hui.
Creating a Culture of Belonging and Community Spirit
Share a Pot takes pride in its values of giving and receiving, which is grounded on four key principles:
- Start with what’s strong, not what’s wrong — Shi Hui explains that the community is conscious to stick to the basics and to not over-service seniors. This gives residents the space to contribute to others and take ownership, such as by washing someone else’s bowl or deciding what recipes to follow for the week.
- Dignity, not charity — Shi Hui emphasises that the dignity of every individual is valued — senior volunteers are consistently acknowledged for their contribution and strengths.
- Individually good, even better together — While each Share a Pot site has its own unique culture, volunteers from different locations regularly come together to share their experiences and transform these into insights that make the community better.
- A platform that celebrates local heroes — Share a Pot goes to great lengths to engender relationships with local heroes, from students and fitness instructors to entrepreneurs and other residents in the neighbourhood.
“I would say the key aspects that create a sense of belonging at Share a Pot are a focus on proliferation in local neighbourhoods and the barrier-free community. We do not charge for membership, do not have entry criteria, and remove social stigma,” says Shi Hui.
It’s a formula that seems to be working. As Shi Hui explains, senior participants usually come for the soup and exercise, but stick around because of the friendships they’ve forged.
- What are the principles that you uphold in your approach towards developing community? Are there any that you can adopt from Share a Pot?
- What is the volunteer profile of your community? Why do they volunteer?
- How can you develop your members to take an active role in the community? How true is it for your community that friendships are what keeps the people sticking around?