Rhythm of life... Patsy (left) teaching her mother, Mary Lai, how to play the drums.
DECEMBER, 2006 — the year that changed Patsy Chia’s life forever. She was fast asleep on Christmas night when she was suddenly awakened by a violent banging on her bedroom door.
Patsy, then 52, would never forget what happened that night; her mother, Mary Lai, then 73, got into an uncontrollable rage and was pounding on her bedroom door. Mary had resorted to chopping Patsy’s bedroom door with a knife when she did not get any response from her. Fortunately, Patsy’s son managed to calm Mary down.
Two days later, Mary had another fit of agitation and rage. Aghast and shocked, Patsy admitted her to the hospital where Mary was diagnosed with dementia. As the only child, Patsy had to bear all the responsibilities for her mother’s care. Mary died at the age of 83 after living with dementia for almost 10 years. Patsy shared with us how she cared for her mother; the difficult, often heart-wrenching decisions she had to make and how she navigated through her daily grief of seeing her beloved mother slowly succumb to the disease. This is her story…
“My mother had a very hard life. She was born into a family of farmers and lost her mother when she was seven. Two years later, she was sold to a rich family as a ‘servant girl’ and had to fend for herself. She later married into a large Peranakan family but in 1980, my father passed away and my mother was widowed at 46. Despite her tough life, she had a strong will, and yet was kind and loving. We were very close. She was very protective of me and worked hard to ensure that I would have a better life.
The signs of her dementia were there — the forgetfulness and repeatedly hitting herself. Thinking that the signs were insignificant, I dismissed them.
When she was diagnosed with dementia, it shocked me; she was my pillar of strength, and to see her personality change was heart-breaking.
I had to make the painful decision of admitting my mother to the nursing home two weeks after the Christmas incident as she required professional care. When my mum found out that she was in a nursing home, she was furious. She cried and told me, ‘I never want to see you again’. It broke my heart to hear that and I felt very guilty. I visited her thrice a week and took her out to enjoy her favourite dim sum every weekend. You could see the sparkle in her eyes each time she tucked into it.
Unshakeable bond... Patsy spent most of her time with her mother during her mother's final year.
In 2014, I had my mother discharged from the nursing home and took her to live with me. By then, I had already told myself that her death was imminent because her condition was deteriorating. I focused on spending as much time with her as possible.
The most painful memory of my caregiving journey was watching my mother acknowledge strangers as her daughter and taking food from them. She no longer recognised me and had lost her sense of logic.
In her final days, her oesophagus and vocal cords shrank and she couldn’t speak. When she drank water, it entered her lungs, which was dangerous. She would be rushed to the Accident and Emergency department five times in a week. It was frightening and I was physically and mentally exhausted. In 2016, after a 10-year battle with dementia, my mother passed on. Thinking about it still makes me cry today.
If you’re a caregiver, my advice to you is to try and stay positive, calm, and be strong. Remember to recharge yourself because if you do not have sufficient energy, you cannot care for your loved ones well. You will be mentally drained and fixated on your sadness. It’s normal, but try to talk yourself out of your negativity.
I encourage caregivers to keep a journal as writing is therapeutic. My caregiving journey inspired me to write a book, ‘Burden No More’. In it, I share my thoughts on how we can prepare ourselves for our golden years, and share tips on coping with the challenges of caregiving.
Writing as therapy... Patsy's caregiving journey inspired her to write 'Burden no more', a book that aims to support and encourage other caregivers.
Don’t cut yourself off from your social circles and don’t be afraid to seek help. Also, sign up for caregiving courses to help you learn how to better care for your loved ones.
Being a caregiver can be emotionally draining, but there are happy moments as well. When my mother was alive, I remember crying and in between sobs, I told her ‘If only you could hear me…’ I felt my mother touch my head and I looked up to see her looking away. Although that moment was fleeting, I felt a strong connection with my mother.”
Patsy’s book, “Burden No More”, is available for loan at all public libraries in Singapore. Those interested in purchasing her book can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org