Singapore is one of the most rapidly aging countries in Asia. The proportion of older adults (aged 60 years and over) in the population, currently about 8%, is projected to increase to 19% by 2030. At the same time, the number of elderly households in Singapore is rising rapidly owing to increased prevalence of smaller, nuclear families and the trend of more people remaining single.
To design evidence-based policies and programs to enhance social networks and prevent social isolation among seniors and to plan for the health care needs of the elderly in the future, the first wave of the Social Isolation, Health and Lifestyle Survey (SIHLS) was conducted. This survey was commissioned by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS). The main objectives of the survey are to:
1. Develop a longitudinal database on the physical and mental health profile of older adults (aged 60+);
2. Determine the extent of social isolation among older adults, and changes with time, within and between income groups;
3. Understand the interactions among health status, income, social engagement, housing, network support and loneliness;
4. Understand the constraints on and channels for social participation;
5. Understand the preferences for preventing and responding to isolation and;
6. Collect anthropometric measures over time in relation to healthy aging
This survey provides information comparable to similar longitudinal surveys in Indonesia and the Philippines which will enable cross country comparison.
Results from the first wave of SIHLS indicate that those living alone and those with weak social networks outside of the household are more likely to be at risk of social isolation. Weak social networks are correlated with poorer health and a lower sense of well-being. This may be because older adults with functional limitations, cognitive impairment, poor vision or hearing may have difficulty forming or maintaining social networks outside the household. Results show that 26% of seniors who lived alone were found to have depressive symptoms as compared to only 9% who were living with others. Further, 16% of seniors with weak social networks outside the household showed depressive symptoms as compared to only 8% who had strong social networks outside of the household.
The survey shows too that there are gender differences in social isolation, health and lifestyles. Females in Singapore have longer life expectancy than males. Older females are more likely to have social networks outside the household. However they are more likely to be socio-economically disadvantaged where a higher proportion of older females than older males are widowed, have no formal education at all, have lower household incomes across their lifetimes and are more likely to have been homemakers throughout their lives.
In the multi-racial Singaporean society, results show differences in perceived social isolation, health and lifestyles by ethnic group. Older Malay adults are least likely to live alone as compared to older Chinese adults and older Indians adults which reduce the likelihood of perceived isolation. Older Indian adults have a higher prevalence of heart disease and diabetes compared to older Chinese adults and older Malay adults. Older Malay adults have a higher prevalence of hypertension compared to the other two ethnic groups.
Based on figures from the Department of Statistics, the number of seniors aged 65 and above living on their own increased from about 15,000 in 2000 to 22,000 in 2005. It is important to ensure that older adults remain connected to society.