THE LONG UPHILL ROAD (The Joys and Sorrows of Care-giving) – by Mrs Tan

“I’m the only one now,” my mother sighed softly as she watched me put up the Christmas tree in December 2009. My father-in-law passed on a few weeks prior, two years after my mother-in-law died of stroke. My husband and I together with our sons used to bring all the three octogenarians for a meal at least weekly. We continued with our outings but my mother must have felt the loss of her contemporaries. She may be anxious too it will be her turn next.

My mother came to Singapore from the Philippines in 1978 to help out when I gave birth to my older son. She’s on survivor’s pension since my father died in December 1977. Initially, she travelled often to and fro between the two countries. In one of the coup attempts in the 80’s a bullet landed in my bedroom while my mother was home alone. We asked her to stay with us in Singapore permanently. But this was not possible.

She has a good sense of humour though. If asked if she would like a piece of cake, she would palpate her forehead and quip “you only ask the sick”. She relates that my husband and I would unsuccessfully sing our sons to slumber. With her only song, they were snoozing! However, my sons had their standard rebuttal: “It is better to sleep than listen!”

She became a bit more pensive in 2002 when a lump formed in her breast. Her moods may be due to the medication to suppress the growth. Palpitations set in when she was startled or worried. She dreads being left alone – especially at night. Teasingly, my son gave her a toy gun and taught her how to shoot an intruder! She can swallow 8-10 pills in one gulp. Her low pain threshold is a challenge in facing health issues like enlarged heart, prolapsed uterus and back problem. Thankfully, her discomforts were addressed. She had cataract operation on both eyes. The orthopaedic surgeon did verteboplasty on her. Cement was injected into her lumbar 4 and 5 to relieve the pressure on her nerves. Her memory and judgment were evidently flagging when she refused to go to the gynaecologist to examine her pessary. This doughnut-like gadget was inserted to push back her prolapsed uterus. She categorically denied having such and emphatically refused to go for check-up.

She had several falls though we tried to make our home safe. She slipped once due to water being spilled on the floor when she rummaged through the refrigerator for a midnight snack. I always prepared a small jar of biscuits to be handy when she looked for a bite. She fell off her bed early one morning and tried to get our attention by banging her door. Lying on her back, her head was blocking the passage. For two hours, we coaxed her to move downwards – without success. We called for a maintenance man who prised open two glass panels of her window. He slid in, pulled her up, opened the door and upon our request, took it out. I quickly sewed a replacement: Japanese style curtain.

One of her falls proved providential. She was trying to get some clothes when a bamboo pole fell on her. We called for an ambulance and she was admitted to a hospital. Her x-ray showed the head wound was superficial. I was however perturbed when I went to her ward. She told me to tell our doctor friend to stop singing. I contradicted her as his clinic is in another hospital. She insisted that it is him and angrily told me to write a cheque to make him quit. Clueless, I phoned my friends who had experience with the elderly. All of them could not help. After 45 minutes of hallucination she fell asleep. We already suspected she hallucinates when she claims there is a man outside the kitchen window. My mother was diagnosed to have mild dementia. Her (overdue) pessary was also taken out. Thankfully, the uterus was in place. Upon discharge, she was followed up by a geriatric doctor and everything was stabilised.

My mother, now 92, is in constant denial when we tell her to refrain from doing household chores. She likes ironing (while seated on a chair) and thinks it is what she can do for the family. I resorted to hiding clothes made of more delicate materials. She forgets to adjust the temperature and cannot discern wash and wear fabrics. Several shirts she ironed have cracked buttons and undergarments lost their stretch. When she is engrossed with reading the Bible and newspapers in the morning, I sneak in to press shirts with long sleeves and the more complicated outfits.

Though we live in a flat without a lift, my mother does not mind going up and down 19 steps aided by walking stick. She loves ‘outings’. We eat out at least every other day so she can have a bit of exercise. The activities of the Senior Members’ Fellowship in church are also helpful. She is amenable to joining activities if I am with her. The idea of being left in a day-care centre albeit for a few hours is wishful thinking. She disdains the thought of not going back to her bedroom at the end of the day. It is a big hassle bringing her along to church camps or conferences which require stay-in. The only ‘holidays’ I enjoy lately is watching “The Coolest Places on Earth’ and ‘Dream Cruises’.

I wonder sometimes if I have a co-dependency with my mother. I worry too much if I am away from her. On 17 July 2015, my step sister who lives in the Philippines ‘left without saying goodbye’. She was the eldest of three siblings in my father’s first marriage. At 85, she did not have health issues. She was intensely rewriting one of her many linguistic books when aneurism and cardiac arrest set in. I could not tell my mother as she detested bad news. Over the phone, my brother-in-law requested that I preach at my sister’s funeral service. Quietly, my son booked an available flight. We decided to break the news to my mother in the morning.

My mother reluctantly allowed me to go for three days. My husband, two sons and daughter –in-law took turns in attending to her needs. It is puzzling what goes on in her mind. She remembered I went to Manila but asked upon my return how my sister and my long deceased step brothers were!

It is a God-given mandate to honour father and mother by caring, obeying, appreciating and respecting them. I am full of gratitude for the years my mother held the fort whenever I joined mission teams (I am trained in Public Health), went overseas for speaking engagements and joined some tours.

As the main caregiver, I am able to pursue my other ‘interests’: sew dresses, write articles, do arts and crafts projects for fund-raising, cook and bake for family and events. I am thankful that as a family, we can give the utmost care that my mother needs and desires.

Family involvement in giving practical and emotional support is essential. My husband cleans the toilet adjacent to my mother’s room daily to sanitize and remove ‘urea smell’. My mop and pail are always ready. With incontinence and mobility issues, we have to be vigilant in keeping the floor safe for everyone. My sons and daughter-in-law lend a hand when needed. I am indeed fortunate to have such a loving family. Each day is a gift of life.