Saturday, October 31, 2009


Some time ago I received an email from a Singapore journalist with a request to share my views on caring for the elderly. I ended up writing about my experience as sole caregiver of my 83-year old mother. Extracts from my article were published in the November issue of the Singapore Women's Weekly. I reproduce below the original article.

The top two challenges of taking care of my 83-year-old mother.
#1 ~ Anxiety about my mother’s safety and health

Is it safe to leave her alone at home? What if she trips or falls? My mother lives on the third floor in a block of walk-up apartments. She has slipped on the stairs twice. Fortunately, she just had some bruises. But what about the next time? She has a very stubborn streak common in most elderly people, and refuses to listen to any advice not to use the stairs as a daily after-meals exercise.

What if she forgets to lock the front door or turn off the gas? What if she faints or has a heart attack, and is unable to contact me? My mom is hard of hearing. Whenever I call home and there’s no answer, I worry if something has happened to her. Her short-term memory is also fading. I worry that if she steps out of the compound on her own for a walk, she might not remember how to find her way home.

#2 ~ Strained relationship

My mom and I have very different ways of thinking. Her habits are a result of the survivor mentality common to those who lived through the Japanese Occupation. Her extreme frugality and unnecessary self-imposed rationing of water, electricity and food has caused friction between us on many occasions. This is compounded by her obsession to collect used plastic bags, empty containers and boxes and store them in her room ‘in case they come in handy”.

If I complain or nag too much about her set ways, she gets upset and threatens to move to an old folks home. On the rare occasions when she feels a little depressed, she has mentioned ‘suicide’, but never in a manner serious enough to cause alarm. She is aware she is very fortunate compared to many of her elderly friends who do not enjoy the same level of independence and family support that she has.
My mom (left) with her younger sister and her spouse.

How I deal with these issues
As I have work and social commitments to fulfil, I can't be at home all the time. I’ve hired a part-time helper to clean, cook and be on standby in case my mother needs emergency help and I’m not around. I’ve also set up a support group of neighbours who drop by for a chat or buy provisions for her at the wet market. My mother visits them regularly as their apartments are either in the same block or just across in the adjoining block.

The security guards have been told not to let my mom wander outside the compound. If I am away for an extended period of time, my younger sister takes over as caregiver.

I’ve written a list of important phone numbers in giant print and placed it on a board propped up against the wall next to the phone for easy viewing and reference whenever my mother needs to call up a family member or friend. The calendar is a daily one, with the date on each page in huge bold print. The clocks have easy-to-read numbers and hands.

All meals are cooked for her. She only has to heat the food if I am out, so there is minimal need to turn on the gas stove. She uses an automatic electric water jug to boil water. There are no carpets or loose wires on the floor to trip her up. All mats are non-slip. The same goes for her slippers and shoes. Empty plastic bags and boxes are quickly cleared so she can’t hoard them.

I do my best to see that my mom is comfortable and has everything she needs. As she gets befuddled by modern gadgets, our household appliances are very simple with basic features and functions. The TV is set at her favourite channel. All she has to do is press the ON / OFF button on the remote control. The CD player already has her favourite CD inserted. Everything that she uses is placed within easy reach. The bathroom is just a few steps away from her bed. As she loves to follow the news, I make sure she gets her daily copy of "The China Press".

I’ve learned not to be overly protective. I let my mom do simple household chores as a form of physical activity. The doctor says it's good for her. She hangs out her laundry by herself, wipes the table after a meal and washes her own utensils. She does exercises and goes for a stroll in the garden twice a day.

She enjoys family get-togethers with her siblings, children and grandchildren, although most times she has no clue who is who. I cope by reminding myself that she’s my only mother, even if we don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things. I live a very busy life so that helps to lessen the moments of tension at home when there is disagreement. I can imagine it would be a different situation if she and I were to be in each other’s space 24/7.

I am fortunate that my mom is in relatively good health and is still physicaly able to take care of herself. But there will come a time when I can no longer leave her alone at home, even for a day or two. When that time comes, I’d have to put her in a good nursing home.

Being my mother’s sole caregiver has given me a deeper understanding of the elderly. It has also helped me prepare for my own golden years. Without her realizing it, she has taught me how I would want to grow old. I see in her certain traits I would want to emulate, and others I absolutely pray I would not!

Would my two girls look after me in my old age? You bet!

Related article:

Becoming 'parent of your parent' an emotionally wrenching process


foodbin said...

my wife and I shared to be a caregiver for my father when he went into depression, broke him femur bone and lastly of oral cancer which took his life away from us in only three months last April-his only bad traits are switching off the fans and lights and he must move his motion daily if not he will be irritated the whole day!

seniorsaloud said...

It's not easy taking care of our elderly parents. Some of us - the sandwich generation - also have to care for our children or grandchildren. But this is the reality that families have to face today.
It will be our turn one day. The least we can do is to make sure we are prepared for our old age.

CheaHSan said...

Wow you are very careful and have taken all necessary steps for her safety and talking about collecting and hoarding old carton boxes, platisc bags etc you are not alone. Guess most old folks think alike..will we be like them in future?

Paul said...

When you are old, feeble & helpless, that's the time you really need to feel love. Having your loved ones to look after you beats all the professional care secured through the aged home. The ever presence of loved ones promote joy & good health. Loneliness & feeling of being discarded & unwanted would mean more harm than good.