Hey You Got Mail

Article

Hey You Got Mail!: Sending good vibes to seniors through tele-befriending

29 March 2022
8 mins read
Hey You Got Mail

The pandemic has resulted in periods of lockdowns and Safe Management Measures (SMMs) that have kept us apart from our loved ones. While many of us can turn to the virtual world to connect, the elderly, who are less well-versed in technology, have inevitably been left out.

This is dangerous because social isolation, especially among seniors, can lead to poorer mental and physical health, and in some cases, even be associated with early death.

It is with this in mind that a group of youth, comprising mainly university students, came together to start Hey You Got Mail! (HYGM).

At the heart of HYGM’s work is the desire to fight social isolation and increase connectedness. Through Hey You Got Mail! Goes Digital, HYGM is offering a tele-befriending service to seniors from collaborating senior activity centres.

For ten weeks, each interested senior will be matched with a volunteer who will check in on them on a weekly basis via phone call, voice message or text message—offering both virtual companionship, and an opportunity for seniors to practice their digital skills.

Sending Good Vibes Only!

Co-founder, Joanne Yep shares that the seeds for this initiative were sown during the 2020 circuit breaker as the team felt a need "to spread good cheer to older people and fight social isolation."

Their initial idea, which sparked the group’s name, Hey, You Got Mail!, was to lift the spirits of the elderly with hand-drawn cards.

“It’s such a nice feeling [to receive an unexpected letter or card], and we wanted to share it with the elderly,” Joanne explains.

Since then, HYGM and its volunteers have been designing and writing cards for the elderly in four vernacular languages. They have spent hours penning well-wishes, creating colourful illustrations, gluing pop-up rainbow “umbrellas”, and labelling envelopes. And with a team of artistic volunteers, they have expanded the range of designs to include different occasions like National Day, Christmas, and anniversaries. To date, over 15,000 cards have been delivered to seniors in partner beneficiaries like Senior Activity Centres (SACs) and nursing homes.

Raynard (left) and Joanne (right) with one of the seniors that Hey, You Got Mail! reached out to at its monthly To Your Doorstep distribution at Ang Mo Kio in February 2022.

Breaking the barriers to connection

Although the cards were extremely well-received, the SMMs that disallowed volunteers to enter these nursing homes prevented them from connecting personally with these seniors, recalls Raynard Ong, director of public relations and marketing.

As the team wanted to get to know seniors, they expanded their outreach and began delivering cards directly to the homes of seniors at rental flats as well. These monthly door-to-door distributions allowed HYGM volunteers to bring seniors snacks and other necessities in addition to just cards, and gave the team ample time to build rapport with the elderly.

Raynard muses that these activities  were meaningful for both the volunteers and the elderly. On his part, one memory he holds close to his heart is of a senior who insisted on thanking the volunteers with a homemade barley drink.

“She reminded me of my grandmother,” he explains. “It made me realise how important it is to cherish such memories and make an effort to create new ones while we still can.”

The team succeeded in doing this during the early part of 2021—until the Delta variant hit Singapore hard in May. When regulations were tightened for Phase 2 (Heightened Alert), and they could no longer visit seniors, they had to find a way to adapt. 

Adding the unique HYGM touch

Going digital seemed to be the obvious choice, as going online would allow HYGM’s work to continue without being limited by social distancing regulations.

The team also felt that this would be important because in their interactions with seniors, they noticed that many struggled with digital challenges. For example, seniors reported difficulties staying on top of evolving COVID-19 guidelines, and most of them preferred to use the TraceTogether token as they could not keep up with the updated functionalities of the app.

To help close the digital gap, in July 2021, HYGM reached out to Infocomm Media and Development Authority (IMDA) to start a digital access initiative, in collaboration with Tembusu Senior Activity Centre (SAC), that allows seniors to stay connected via technology. Two months later, this cumulated in HYGM, IMDA, Tembusu SAC and the Singapore Digital Office (SDO), uniting to educate seniors in Eunos Crescent about subsidised digital access options such as the Mobile Access Scheme and the Home Access Programme (HAS).

In a collaboration with IMDA, Hey, You Got Mail!'s volunteers visit seniors to share about the subsidised Mobile Access Scheme at Tembusu SAC in Eunos Crescent.

Prior to this collaboration with IMDA, Joanne believed the biggest obstacle to seniors going digital was the lack of access to digital devices. Then, when introducing seniors to MAS and HAS, she encountered an elderly couple who owned but did not want to use smartphones—they saw no point as their children still visited them, and they could always head downstairs to chat with their neighbours if they were bored.

The conversation enlightened Joanne that the bigger barrier to cross was not access, but motivation. She realised that education alone is not enough to prevent seniors from becoming digitally estranged as the country progresses towards becoming a smart nation. Instead, more community support is needed to give seniors more avenues and reasons to use technology in the first place.

The priority is always people first

This is why HYGM felt that the digital befriending programme would be suitable, she says: It leveraged on the desire seniors had to connect with people, like volunteers, to motivate them to acquire and practice digital skills.

Raynard adds: “Seniors love to chat, so if volunteers have an open mind and are willing to listen to their stories, they’ll be able to form a connection.” Significantly, it is through this connection that volunteers will also be able to find out what seniors want to learn, and in turn, be able to help them pick up the digital skills that they need the most.

Digital avenues to reach volunteers

The digital befriending programme also makes it easier to find volunteers, Joanne shares.

“When we ask people what’s holding them back from volunteering, many of them shared that they have concerns that volunteering will take up too much of their time and energy, on top of their commitment to school or work,” she explains, noting that the flexibility of online befriending can help people overcome time constraints and may make them more ready to participate.

To complement the online befriending initiative, HYGM has launched a social media campaign to raise awareness on social isolation, Raynard shares. This includes a mix of posts on conversation starters, videos or profiles of seniors—content that can generate interest in working with seniors and inform the public on how to engage with the elderly in their lives. The group believes that this knowledge can bridge intergenerational understanding and in turn, encourage more seniors to use digital technology.

Joanne (left) and Raynard (right) together with their team of student volunteers after a morning of door-to-door outreach to the seniors of Cornerstone@AMK.

Join the battle against social isolation!

The emphasis on rallying the public is important to Joanne and Raynard. Looking back on the past two years that HYGM has been around, they acknowledge that their progress in the battle against social isolation has only been made possible because of the combined efforts of dedicated volunteers and community partners like IMDA and SACs.

“The battle against social isolation cannot be fought on individual fronts,” Joanne reiterates, concluding that: “There is never a better time [to start volunteering] than now—you can always start with us!”

There are many ways you can do your part to empower the elderly:

    • Volunteer with Hey, You Got Mail! by reaching out to them on Instagram @heyyougotmailsg or drop them an email at hey@heyyougotmail.com
    • Keen to start an initiative that helps build a digitally inclusive society or contribute to the Digital for Life Fund? IMDA can help. Find out more at www.imda.gov.sg/digitalforlife/get-started