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Seniors take to the stage in their “encore” years
Ageing Articles

Seniors take to the stage in their “encore” years

Mrs Singh smiling at a theatre workshop

Mrs Singh enjoys a candid moment at a theatre workshop

As the music floods the theatre, Mrs Charan Singh starts doing the shuffle. She takes small steps with one foot at a time: Left, right, left, right. Her shoulders bop up and down; her whole body is in tune with the music, as she enters stage right.

Energised by the crowd, the 78 year-old struts her stuff on stage.

 “When I walk out onto the theatre floor and I’m faced with a packed audience, my mind focuses itself and I become this other person. I feel this energy in my body and I feel so alive—like nothing and no one in this world can stop me.” she says.

Mrs Singh retired about 20 years ago after a career in the teaching service, schooling students on the intricacies of the English language.

But instead of kicking back to relax, Mrs Singh decided to fill her time by volunteering and joining an acting troupe called Ageless Theatre, a non-profit interest group managed and run entirely by seniors.

Since their inception in 2011, the group have written, directed and performed in seven major productions, often to sold-out audiences.

Aside from using theatre as a means to keep themselves active, the group makes it a point to weave in messages addressing social issues concerning the elderly into their plays. These range from topics like loneliness and isolation to seniors finding love in their twilight years.

In 2017, Ageless Theatre put together “Surrender”—a play that encourages the elderly to pursue their dreams regardless of age or circumstance. 

For Mrs. Singh, one of the best things about being a member of Ageless Theatre is the sense of family and community that the group embodies. 

“We are constantly helping and motivating each other to become better theatre actors every day. If someone is having trouble memorizing lines for example, we all gather together to help them out and make sure no one gets left behind.”

She adds that they keep each other abreast of any updates via a Whatsapp group containing all members. Apart from posting reminders of upcoming rehearsals, members use the group chat as a means to organize meet ups and and other recreational activities.

Outside the realm of theatre, the group also embarks on social missions in their free time where they head down hospices and hospitals to conduct art therapy sessions for seniors.

For 66-year old founder Mrs Peggy Ewe, Ageless Theatre represents a safe space for expression and a platform for seniors to truly be themselves.

“More than just a theatre group, I wanted AT to be a space of respect and trust to bond seniors. I think it’s very important that we have such platforms so that seniors can be themselves, share experiences and showcase their talents boldly,”

Scriptwriting, directing, acting, sourcing for sponsorship, printing of flyers, securing venues: Ageless Theatre handles everything a normal theatre group does.

In his role as artistic director, 43-year old Yeo Hon Beng, a seasoned practitioner who has managed professional theatre groups in the past, explains how managing a group of seniors has given him a new perspective on the elderly.

“The levels of energy and enthusiasm that I face each time during rehearsal is truly amazing. If anything, they are on par, if not more active and raring to go than younger groups I’ve managed in the past.”

In order to make rehearsal sessions conducive for everyone, he makes it a point to ensure that warm-ups are interactive and engaging to do away with the physical strain. Hourly breaks are integrated into each session to ensure the well-being of everyone. He also incorporates reflection sessions at the end of each rehearsal for seniors to vocalize their thoughts and speak about anything under the sun.

For Mrs Singh, being part of Ageless Theatre means being part of a family that makes her feel young at heart.

 “The most important thing is to always keep your mind and body activeI’m only as old as I allow myself to be,” she adds.

Mrs Singh adding some final touches to her stage props

 

The Encore Years

Mrs Singh fits the profile of what American sociologist Phyllis Moen calls individuals in their “Encore Adulthood”.

With life expectancy rising, it is no longer reasonable or practical to expect that this group of people retire early only to fade away from society. This group of young retirees remain healthy, able and mentally alert, says Dr Moen.

“Surveys show that 70 percent of older workers say they want to do some kind of engaging work in retirement, but most don’t do that because they don’t know what’s next and don’t know how to get there,” she notes.

“These people are not young — but they’re not old, either. And our society simply has no blueprint for this stage of life, what I call encore adulthood.”

According to a report published by the Institute of Policy Studies in 2013, seniors are not only healthier, with a lower percentage of hospitalisation among seniors in 2011 compared with 2005, but also growing more independent.

Mrs Singh (right), playing the role of a disgruntled shop assistant in Ageless Theatre’s most recent production entitled “Surrender”.

 

With health on their side, these young seniors are continuing to contribute through a range of activities, from extending their career beyond their 60s to working and volunteering.

According to the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre’s Individual Giving surveys, the number of seniors who volunteer has more than doubled from 13 per cent in 2008 to 29 per cent in 2016. These seniors are redefining what it means to age, moving away from traditional notions of illness and reliance.   

With more and more seniors investing their time in giving back to society, greater efforts have also been devoted to making public and private spaces conducive for the elderly to live, work and play. Longevity can mean a new lease of life, as we continue to value and support the contributions of our seniors through encore adulthood.

Boxed story

Growing old means getting the chance to experience the passage of time. An exhibition at the Science Centre wants to accelerate the process by helping young people understand what it means to age.

The Singapore Science Centre’s Dialogue with Time is an interactive space where visitors are able to experience first-hand the realities of ageing as told through personal recollections and stories by senior guides.

In his free time, Mr Johnnie enjoys a game of golf.

 

One of the guides is ex-police officer Mr. Johnnie Siregar. As a former veteran detective with the Singapore Police Force for over 26 years, Mr Johnnie now works as a senior guide at the Science Centre exhibition.


The sprightly 85-year old grandfather of four hopes to change common misconceptions that people might have about seniors.


“Ageing to me is ensuring I stay happy, so that I can live long and live healthy without being a burden on anyone. As an exhibition guide, I find my role to be meaningful because I am able to share my experiences with the younger generation,” he says.

Mr Johnnie discussing a special moment in his life during one of the sharing sessions with visitors to the exhibition.

 

The 85-year old who has been a vegan for the past 40 years, stresses the importance of exercise and eating well as the cornerstones of his good health. He makes it a point to squeeze in at least an hour of exercise a day by chalking up an average of 10,000 steps daily.


To ensure that guides such as Mr Johnnie are able to do his work, the Science Centre has put in a slew of measures to ensure that all 32 senior guides aged between 65 and 85 years old, were well taken care of.

Each guide’s total weekly shift is capped at 13.5 hours per week, with each shift lasting not more than 4.5 hours.

Seeing how some of the guides might not have led tours before or might have hailed from non-related professions, proper training and support was also provided for all guides to ensure that they were well equipped and prepared for different scenarios.

Associate Professor Lim Tit Meng, Chief Executive of Science Centre Singapore, said that apart from providing the public with important lessons, it was also important to give the seniors new life experiences and a platform to build lasting relationships.

“If we can understand seniors better and help maximise their longevity, our seniors can enjoy more years of healthy, happy and meaningful lives. This exhibition brings to fore some of the challenges related to ageing and seeks to foster greater understanding, empathy and preparedness for something we must all eventually face,” he says.

In a country with a rapidly ageing population, each of us needs to shift towards a notion of ageing with vigour – to live a full life, and life to the full, and create an inclusive Singapore for all ages. 


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