Volunteering for happiness: Inside Reunion at the National Museum, a haven for Singapore’s seniors

Since it opened last April, Reunion has been a sanctuary for Singapore's elderly, fostering strong bonds and offering a space for reminiscence. One year on, we speak to volunteer care facilitator Lau Hui Tiang to find out more.

  • 29 Apr 2024

Visitors from St Luke’s ElderCare posing for the camera after an activity session at Reunion.

After retiring in 2019, Madam Lau Hui Tiang found herself on a quest for purpose. With newfound time on her hands, the former finance professional was exploring opportunities when she stumbled upon a volunteer recruitment listing from the National Museum.  

The role of a Care Facilitator resonated with her, offering the chance to connect with elderly visitors, particularly those grappling with dementia – a cause close to her heart, as a loved one had also been diagnosed with the condition.

Care facilitator Hui Tiang assists a senior participant at Memory Lane, an immersive room where visitors get to design their own virtual exhibition.

“The museum offered very good training and support. Even though I was not the primary caregiver, I wanted to learn how to interact with seniors who had dementia,” says Hui Tiang.

Turns out, the insights she had gleaned from the volunteer training proved to be invaluable when communicating with seniors with dementia and mild cognitive impairment. 

“I’ve learned not to ask them if they remember. Instead, I prompt them to share more. And when I pose a question, I give them time to think. This process has also taught me to slow down,” she says.

A welcoming space for the elderly 

Since Reunion opened to the public, much of Hui Tiang’s interactions with the seniors have taken place there. It is the first social space in Singapore dedicated to enhancing the elderly community’s health and wellbeing.

It offers both drop-in and facilitated programmes, such as the immersive and interactive Memory Lane experience where seniors can jointly curate a digital exhibition with others. Other activities and spaces include a mystery cart that encourages interaction and recollection, music booths, a quiet room and a café.

Hui Tiang facilitating a discussion using a kerosene lamp, one of the items from the Mystery Cart found at Reunion.

 “There are many ‘oh-I-didn’t-know’ moments here. I’ve not used a lot of the items in the Mystery Cart like the kerosene lamp and the rattan ball, so I often ask the seniors genuine questions,” she says.

For 73-year-old first time visitor Madam Tay Ah Hock, Reunion is a much-cherished throwback to the past.  

She says  in Mandarin: “I’m so happy to be here. I haven’t seen these scenes from childhood for a long time, like that basket which we used for weddings in the past. This place has a lot of antiques.”

National Museum’s Assistant Manager (Programmes), Ms Lee Huiyi, shares  that the demand for programmes at Reunion has increased in the recent months.

We aim for seniors to feel rejuvenated and reconnected here while forging new friendships,

Visitors from St Luke’s ElderCare, Mr Tan Kiat Hoi, 75, and Madam Wan Cellia, 85, share a happy moment at Reunion as they await lunch.

Reminiscing helps to boost happiness, self-esteem

Reconnection aptly describes Madam Wan Cellia’s experience visiting Reunion and the Singapore History Gallery. Both spaces evoked warm memories of the 85-year-old's childhood in Katong. 

“Seeing the seaside reminded me of my home, right next to Katong Convent where I studied. I was so playful that the nuns would always tease me by saying, ‘Aiya, the devil has come!’” she laughs.

As someone who is also approaching her silver years, Hui Tiang understands the inclination to reminisce about the past, especially among the elderly.

Remembering positive things helps to boost self-esteem and makes them feel good, especially since many of them are less mobile now. It feels great to hear their stories about the past

When organising the seniors’ activities, Huiyi emphasises that the programmes are always centred around conversations and participation.

“Unlike children or the general public, they are not here to learn new things. We've observed that they tend to open up more when they can relate to and reminisce about an object,” she says. 

A care facilitator points to the speaker at Reunion’s Music Booth, as he introduces the space to seniors.

"We want to make the seniors happy"

During the early days of the pandemic, the National Museum started providing virtual tours to the elderly, thrusting a then-inexperienced Hui Tiang into unchartered territory. 

“I not only had to stand in front of a camera, but I also had to look directly at it, which I was not used to,” said Hui Tiang. 

Besides picking up new tech skills, she also learned how to be more adaptable in the face of challenges and be more attuned to the seniors’ moods and preferences. 

“Sometimes, they sign up for an activity and don’t turn up. Or when they do, they are unhappy and remain unresponsive throughout the session. Whenever this happens, we just go with the flow,” she says. 

Seniors from St Luke’s ElderCare clap along to a spontaneous dance performed by their caregivers and care facilitators.

 “We may prepare our script, but the main goal is to facilitate a conversation. The key thing for volunteers is to make the seniors happy.”

The role of a care facilitator stands in stark contrast to Hui Tiang’s previous career in finance. 

Reflecting on her post-retirement experiences, she says, "Volunteering here has been a positive experience for me. It's made me more patient, and I now have a better understanding of the elderly.”

When asked about important qualities that aspiring volunteers should possess, she emphasises, “Patience, a willingness to take things slowly, empathy, and flexibility to adapt to change.”