All photos by Marc Clarence for RICE Media.
Five years ago, at 70, Ramakrishnan S/O Nadarajan suffered a stroke.
It was life-changing. It severely limited his mobility and forced him out of work. During recovery, his diabetes also took a sudden turn for the worse. He was admitted to the hospital, where he fought a gruelling battle for 40 days. By the end of it, his two legs were amputated.
Upon discharge, Ramakrishnan was relocated to the Sree Narayana Mission (Singapore) Nursing Home near Yishun Central.
It’s where I meet him on a stormy afternoon. But the gloom of the weather has no impact on his mood. When he speaks, Ramakrishnan exudes an air of calm. Though confined to a wheelchair, he radiates warmth among those around him.
I laid out to him some questions I have about intergenerational friendship, something he’s been familiar with.
That was when he candidly shared his observations, noting how young people are always “filled with curiosity and questions”.
“They want to know how I came to stay at the nursing home, why I lost my legs, and if I ever feel sad or miss home,” he says, smiling.
“When I confide that, yes, there are moments I’d be sad, these young people will also feel sad for me. But I always remind them: speaking with them makes me happy, so they need not dwell on sadness.”
These young people are, in Ramakrishnan’s words, his friends. Or, as he calls them affectionately, his “grandchildren”.
In truth, they’re student volunteers who pay him occasional visits.
I sensed that my presence must have reminded Ramakrishnan of his young visitors. He welcomed me naturally, without the need for any awkward introductions or uncomfortable silence.
It resembles how my grandparents would receive me when I visit them.
I wasn’t the only one who felt this connection with Ramakrishnan.
Bridging the Generation Gap
Cleryce Yim embodies all the qualities one would expect from a typical 12-year-old. She is pleasant and bashful, often accompanied by a charming touch of cheerfulness. During our conversation, her eyes occasionally dart towards her parents, as if seeking reassurance.
She is one of the youngest friends of Ramakrishnan. The duo met through an Intergenerational Bonding Programme, an initiative jointly established by the Girl Guides Singapore and Sree Narayana Mission (Singapore) Nursing Home over a decade ago.
It explains why Cleryce was dressed in her Brownies (a section in the Girl Guides organisation for girls aged 7 to 12) uniform, which made her look all smart and polished.
Ramakrishnan, she tells me, has a remarkable talent for comforting people.
“I remember the first time we met; he was the one who waved and greeted me in a friendly manner. I immediately felt at ease with him.”
Ramakrishnan himself acknowledges the unique bond they share. “Many of the young people who visited me at the nursing home are from secondary schools, if not older,” he adds.
“But as always, I find joy in conversing with Cleryce. I remember her telling me she would like to come to the nursing home more often to talk to me and other residents here.”
Their interactions remind me of the serene moments I’ve witnessed between my mother and my son, both of whom love spending time with each other even though they are 60 years apart.
I recall mornings when my mother would lovingly watch my son play at the neighbourhood playground. Or when my mom taught my son how to fold his shirt properly. Or when my son showed her the artwork he did in school.
Still, I wonder how Cleryce and Ramakrishnan navigate their friendship despite the significant age gap.
“It’s not easy,” Cleryce admits—the substantial gap in age and maturity requires some adjustments. Her conversations with peers involve non-stop chatter and playful teasing.
“In contrast, when it comes to communicating with the elderly, it’s a bit different,” Cleryce notes. “We need to be mindful of our words and questions, ensuring we don’t unintentionally hurt them.”
She mentioned she would break the ice by asking about their hobbies, favourite colours, and what they normally enjoy doing to see if she could establish common ground.
Nonetheless, Cleryce firmly believes in being herself and treating people, regardless of their age, with the same respect and courtesy.
She explains that in her daily life, she converses with individuals of all ages, including the uncles and aunties at the hawker centres, without distinction based on age.
The same principle applies to her interactions with Ramakrishnan. Cleryce responds naturally to all his curious queries and comments and reciprocates the warmth and kindness he shares by pushing his wheelchair around the nursing home or just sitting by his side, listening attentively to everything he has to say.
Cleryce considers the befriending programme highly meaningful—a unique opportunity that doesn’t come by easily.
Her father, Eric Yim, agrees. He points out that Cleryce has had experience relating to seniors from a young age, particularly those who require special assistance–his mother (Cleryce’s grandmother) is diagnosed with dementia.
So, he believes the befriending programme is a chance to put into practice everything that Cleryce has learnt from her grandmother over the years.
“I find it a blessing that she is taking the initiative to befriend the elderly, and there is an opportunity available to her,” Eric says.
Cleryce hopes to be more patient and empathetic—values that align with the Brownies programme, she affirms.
As for Ramakrishnan, his young friends are his “windows to the outside world”.
Through them, he learned that YouTube is where one can watch and upload videos online. There’s Zoom, which he can use to call his young friends before playing a round of Scrabble with them.
“I am happy I get to pass my time with these young people,” Ramakrishnan says. “The fact that they like my company and genuinely care about getting to know us warms my heart.
“I always make an effort to explain to them why I am here and what I do every day. Because they have so many questions, I feel like we will never run out of topics to talk about. That’s probably why we interact so well, because they are not just friends; they are family members I never thought I would have.”
Ramakrishnan confessed to moments of childish jealousy when his young friends chose to engage with other nursing home residents instead of him. Unfortunately, the pandemic has imposed numerous restrictions, drastically reducing face-to-face meetings and interactions he dearly misses.
“Yes, we still have video calls, but it’s not the same. Time seems to pass quicker when we meet in person and do activities like colouring and board games together.”
The Intergenerational Bonding Programme won Sree Narayana Mission (Singapore) and Girl Guides Singapore the City of Good award in this year’s President’s Volunteerism & Philanthropy Awards (PVPA). The award recognises cross-sector partnerships for good that have achieved significant and sustainable impact and effectiveness, resulting in lasting contributions to society.
Since 2011, more than 200 intergenerational programmes have been held for the senior residents in Sree Narayana Mission (Singapore) nursing home.
It has helped create a virtuous cycle of understanding, support, and collaboration among different generations and stakeholders, fostering a more inclusive and dementia-friendly society.
However, the genesis of this heartwarming initiative, as highlighted by Mr S. Devendran, the Chief Executive Officer of Sree Narayana Mission (Singapore), was never driven by the pursuit of awards.
“We hope to create opportunities for residents to interact with the larger community and especially with the youth and younger children,” the CEO affirms.
“It’s more than that,” Ramakrishnan remarks. “My young friends offer me something to look forward to at the end of the day.”
His sentiment underscores a universal truth: irrespective of age, we all yearn for a sense of purpose and connection.
“No matter where we are in our life journey, staying engaged is essential so we don’t get bored with our lives,” Ramakrishnan continues. “Even in my wheelchair, I keep myself busy with activities, from physiotherapy to hockey and even basketball. Of course, the most rewarding of all is conversing with my friends.”
If not for the rain, I believe Cleryce and Ramakrishnan would have happily spent their afternoon in the garden, amidst the greenery and under the sunlight.
“I always remind Cleryce that life is not just about results,” Eric adds. “No matter how successful we become, it’s our character and the relationships we cultivate in life that hold greater significance.”
Age is a curious factor when it comes to forming connections. It’s not unheard of that individuals from a generation don’t always fully agree with those from other generations (i.e., Gen Z vs Boomers).
As such, some of us might be hesitant to build relationships with those younger or older, fearing the lack of common ground.
In the case of Cleryce and Ramakrishnan, the former’s openness and the latter’s wisdom, drawn from his life experiences, turn into invaluable resources. The power of genuine friendship lies in the connection, understanding, and unwavering support that transcends the years that separate us.
From there, we re-learn the meaning of friendship, knowing that friends are the special ones who uplift, inspire, and walk beside you on this incredible journey called life.