COMPANIES should offer more flexible arrangements so as to allow older people to keep working, said Mr Heng Chee How, Senior Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office.

He said companies should model themselves on adaptor plugs that fit any type of socket. For example, they could offer multiple working platforms - part-time work, flexible hours or working from home.

Such arrangements would allow them to take advantage of a large pool of older people who have stopped working, but could be persuaded to re-enter the workforce given the right conditions. Offering greater flexibility would also help companies cope with a tight labour market, said Mr Heng.

The employment rate among men starts to decline from the age of 50, Ministry of Manpower figures show. By the time they hit 55 or 60, the rate is accelerating rapidly.

Among women, the slide starts much sooner, in their 30s - an age when many start having children.

Only slightly more than three in four men aged aged 55 to 64 are still employed, while less than half the women this age are still working.

Mr Heng said that part of his job on the Ministerial Committee on Ageing is to 'make sure that as people want to work longer, and need to work longer, the health part is better taken care of to enable them to do so'.

From this year, companies have to offer employees who turn 62 - which remains the official retirement age - a chance at continued employment.

The Government is not expecting companies 'to do national service' with this change in the rules, said Mr Heng.

He noted: 'Most people in their 60s today are still very fit and able to carry on working. Health has become less of a barrier to employment. Sixty-year-olds can contribute better than they were able to 40 years ago, so we should tap them.'

Keeping older people employed can help them remain healthy, he said.

'Keeping active is the point, whether in employment or off regular work, because of the longer runway ahead. They should not just stall and degenerate.'

To that end, Mr Heng is testing out several schemes in his Whampoa constituency aimed at keeping people active and socially involved. If successful, they could be rolled out nationally.

With the help of the Health Promotion Board, Mr Heng is asking general practitioners in Whampoa to urge their older patients to join community activities.

Instead of just telling them they need to exercise more, he wants the doctors to recommend taiji or brisk walking activities organised by the community centre.

He wants older people to be drawn from one activity to another, such as singing or dancing, or an outing. This way, they will have a group of friends of their own age.

They can share their health experiences, and someone who discovers a chronic ailment, such as diabetes, can turn to these friends as a resource.

'They would not feel insulted if one of these friends 'nagged' them to go for treatment,' said Mr Heng. 'This social glue is very important.'