Empower Ageing believes seniors can do anything they set their minds to, right down to hiking Mount Faber at the grand age of 94.

Above: Seniors complete Empower Ageing’s Go For Your Mountain (G.Y.M.) Challenge with loved ones.

Most people see the world’s ageing population as a problem.

But, Isaiah Chng, Founder of Empower Ageing, sees it as a once-in-lifetime opportunity to change what society thinks growing older means.

Growing up, Isaiah saw how seniors were abandoned by their children – and how their wellbeing deteriorated. He noticed how the system was not designed to intervene at the right stage, with the leading narrative around ageing being one of defeat and despair.

But is being on a wheelchair or having dementia ‘the end’’? Why do we assume that we stop learning and improving once we enter nursing homes? Could we instead instill a culture of lifelong learning in nursing homes, for instance?

So keen was Isaiah to get society thinking about these ‘what ifs’ that he founded Empower Ageing. The charity supports seniors in ageing well and among other things, has organised an annual sporting challenge for seniors to hike Mount Faber. This stretch goal helps open their hearts and minds to what’s possible. We chat with Isaiah.

1. What got you started on your giving journey?

My father was a very giving person. He was a manager, and I observed how he gave to his subordinates, even labourers. Giving seemed innate, a second nature and the most ‘human’ thing to do.

I started by helping my grandma, and then visited seniors in the nursing home. Ultimately, giving is a way to show goodwill and love for others.

2. What made you start Empower Ageing?

When volunteering at a nursing home, I saw how seniors ‘declined’ as they aged and there was a need to change how eldercare was being delivered in the community. Empower Ageing develops frailty solutions centered in the belief that we can age well.

To me, the key to ageing well is these two key tenets:

i) Someone who is active – able to move
ii) Someone who is proactive – still willing to learn

There is also a greater goal of inspiring the next generation and investing in them through role modeling and shaping how youth think.

3. What makes you passionate about helping the elderly?

Society still perceives seniors in a negative, hopeless and disempowering manner. When I told someone that her mother may not need the wheelchair, she incredulously responded “No lah, she’s too old already!”

Nowadays, most millennials believe “I don’t want to live in the nursing home. I want to be healthy.” So I see this dichotomy of negative and positive. People want to see the positive, yet have to shift their negative mindset for the positive solution to become prominent.

What made you start the annual ‘Go For Your Mountain’ (G.Y.M.) challenge that allows seniors to scale Mount Faber alongside family and friends?

At a nursing home, a man told me “I’m useless. I want to die.” Elderly suicides are at a nation-wide high. So, climbing Mount Faber is meant to be symbolic. It reminds them that they can achieve their dreams, whether it is visiting their family overseas, reuniting with their children or running their own business. It activates them to ‘dreamcast’, that is to express their dream and work towards it.

Seniors sign up for G.Y.M. with family members or caretakers. It’s a representation of believing in each other’s intergenerational dream. I see strength in that.

Moreover, the hike shifts people’s perception on frailty and shows how seniors have potential.

5. I understand that you started G.Y.M. last year. How did it go?

6 people from nursing homes attempted the challenge. 4 made it to the peak. The oldest participant was 94 years old, and they all had cognitive impairments. Prior to the hike, all could only walk an average of 60 minutes. Plus 94-year-old Uncle Nonis had been on a wheelchair. So, we prepared them through obstacle courses, walking relays (e.g. walk as long as possible along a 10m walkway) and an evidence-based power training programme. On the day of the climb, Uncle Nonis had assistance as he made slow but determined steps up Mount Faber.

The intervention isn’t just physical. It’s meant to be symbolic. Climbing Mt Faber signifies their ability to reach their dreams. So, every training session aimed to find out more about them: What are their dreams? Purpose? Who is important to them? We encourage conversations that provide perspective, both heart and body.

6. Most young people believe seniors can be stubborn. Do you feel the same way?

I feel it’s actually about how you get seniors to open up. We saw how seniors and young people interacted in the nursing home and throughout the journey of climbing the mountain. It tends to be the case that young people are adamant about a stereotype until challenged. Ultimately, we’re all human.

Above: A mother-daughter duo ‘dreamcasts’ together, that is sharing their aspirations and dreams.

7. What’s one tip you’ll give others?

Stop using your phone and start talking to seniors. Get to know them and understand the slow beauty of that.