Ms Khoo stares at her smartphone. She brings it to her ear to see if it’s working. After a few rings, her daughter appears on the screen. “I can see her while we talk,” Ms Khoo says with a grin.

She joined other senior citizens at a community centre on a Saturday morning to learn how to make video calls and buy groceries on their phones. Singapore launched a programme in May to teach the elderly smartphone skills that could help them cope with the pandemic.

GovInsider spoke with Minister for Communications and Information, S Iswaran, to find out more.

Lives disrupted

Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority launched the Seniors Go Digital programme as Covid-19 restrictions reduced residents’ movement. The measures were particularly strict for the elderly as it shut frequently-visited public spaces like community centres, markets and hawker centres.

“The biggest impact of Covid-19 for our seniors has been a sense of not being able to continue with their normal life,” Minister Iswaran told GovInsider. “They get detached from the regular cycles, whether it is their social activities and their other daily activities. So, one important value proposition of digital technology is really to help our seniors cope with this kind of challenge.”

The training starts with communication skills like video calls, connecting to WiFi, and basic cyber security tips. It progresses to learning to log in to government services with their SingPass digital identity, pay with QR codes at markets, and ordering groceries online.

A safe learning environment

The workshops are run in environments the elderly are familiar with like community centres and libraries. They are supported by 1,000 volunteers who work as “digital ambassadors” to coach the elderly one-on-one or in small groups.

“The concern on the minds of many seniors in particular, is not the first time or the one occasion when they learnt. It is about, ‘What do I do when I forget, or if I have questions or if I need to come back and check where do I go, whom do I talk to?’,” Minister Iswaran said on a visit to one of the sessions last week.

“We have training and opportunities for our seniors to learn in a natural environment, not feeling threatened and knowing that they will be supported throughout the journey.” Around 16,000 people have gone through the programme, and the government plans to reach 100,000 by March next year.

Some seniors may not be able to afford smartphones or a data plan. Singapore has partnered with telcos to provide these at subsidised rates: $20 for a smartphone and $5 a month for a 1-year mobile plan.

“The objective is first, to ensure that our seniors are able to get access to digital technologies through connectivity, and we want to make sure that this is done in a manner that is affordable,” he said.

The pandemic poses a double threat to the elderly – the disease itself, and the uncertainty and isolation of this new normal. Schemes to train and support them in a safe environment may give their lives some semblance of normalcy.