Miss Tan (not her real name), 78 years old, found herself developing anxiety symptoms after a stent surgery. It worsened when she felt people and things that she treasured were slipping away from her.
Before the Surgery
Miss Tan lived with her nephew, Daniel in a HDB rental flat. As Miss Tan has never married and is childless, she had cared for Daniel and brought him up like her own son. Miss Tan worked as a part-time cleaner at a childcare centre during the day. After work, she would often return to an empty house as Daniel often worked overtime at the office. Even so, Miss Tan is a strong-headed and independent elderly who took care of herself.
One night while alone at home, she had a heart attack. She required stent surgery, but her life turned upside down.
After the Surgery
The surgery gave Miss Tan a stent, but it also took many things away from her.
She lost her independence as she had to stay with her brother, Mr Tan and sister-in-law. Miss Tan became so paranoid of having another heart attack when no one would be around to help her. This fear and insecurity induced feelings of anxiousness. She frequently felt breathless and experienced panic attacks. Worried, Mr Tan accompanied her to the hospital, in hopes of getting Miss Tan into counselling. Thus, she was referred to O’Joy by the hospital.
On the first house visit, the counsellor, Geok Yun, learnt that Mr Tan wanted his elderly sister to be less reliant on him and to get along with his wife. Due to differences in lifestyle and habits, the two women would often squabble over trivial matters all day and Mr Tan felt sandwiched between them. Unable to take it anymore, Miss Tan quickly moved back to her rental flat a month later.
However, things did not get better.
As Daniel often worked late into the night, there was nobody there for Miss Tan. Little did she know, Daniel was planning to move out to live with his fiancée. Not only did this worsen her anxiety, but it also strained her relationship with Daniel.
She felt unacknowledged as Daniel’s guardian, and deep down, she was reluctant to let him go. Her emotions however manifested as arguments and petty fights with Daniel.
Daniel tried to appease her but she just seemed unhappy with everything he did. Ultimately, Miss Tan refused to attend Daniel’s wedding.
At first, there seemed to be a glimmer of hope, that she could still visit her psychiatrist to reduce her anxiety, and in turn, mend her relationship with Daniel. However, Miss Tan soon found out that her usual psychiatrist left for further studies. She felt unfamiliar with her new psychiatrist. Eventually, Miss Tan perceived that she had lost yet another important person in her life. She slowly sank into depression.
To cope with the anxiety and loneliness, Miss Tan would admit herself to A&E or visit the polyclinic frequently. Sometimes in a day, she would visit her neighbour multiple times, as it was difficult to face the empty nest at home.
Despite her anxiety and depression, Miss Tan found hope in religion. On invitation from her neighbour, she started to attend church every week and enjoyed the hymns and the company. However, things quickly turned sour. While helping her to spring clean, her church friends accidentally disposed of her family heirloom - a rosary passed from her grandmother to her mother and to her. Being a sentimental person, the rosary, although rather ragged, was one of her cherished possessions and her last memories of her beloved mother. She searched frantically and asked several people, but the item could not be retrieved.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
The grief experienced by Miss Tan was multi-layered as she slowly lost her health and independence, the trusted and familiar people in her life (her psychiatrist and Daniel), and her belongings (the rosary). Geok Yun worked with Miss Tan through several months to help her process her grief and loss. Additionally, Geok Yun talked separately with Miss Tan and Daniel to repair their relationship. She facilitated both sides to understand each others’ feelings and expectations better.
After reconciliation with Daniel, Miss Tan finally agreed to attend his wedding. At the tea ceremony, Daniel and his wife kneeled down and served tea to her. He thanked Miss Tan for taking care of him when his mother was unable to, and that he would continue to be filial to her. His words brought tears to her eyes. This provided the acknowledgement and closure that she needed.
Besides grief counselling, Geok Yun also helped Miss Tan with anxiety management. Over the course of three years, Miss Tan mastered relaxation and mindfulness exercises taught by Geok Yun. By gaining awareness of her anxiety symptoms, she got better at managing her anxiety and stopped visiting the hospital repeatedly.
However, the journey was not smooth sailing. At times when her anxiety flares up, Geok Yun would arrange more counselling sessions with Miss Tan. She would also accompany Miss Tan for medical appointments so that the elderly would feel less alone.
Now that Miss Tan’s condition is stable, O’Joy assigned a para-counsellor to visit her regularly. In her day-to-day life, she interacts with other elderly in her neighbourhood, and she even helps them with grocery shopping and cooking. In her free time, she goes for walks in the neighbourhood park, exercises, and completes sudoku books.
Deep down, Miss Tan has embraced anxiety as part of her life. She knows that the anxiety will still arise every now and then. She would focus on breathing in and out and let it fade away.
* The names, photos, and some details in this story have been changed to protect the privacy and confidentiality of the client and her family.
Grief and loss is a situation often experienced by most elderly as they go through the demise of a spouse, their elderly friends, losing their own health and independence, their treasured belongings, their identity and eventually their purpose of living.
O'Joy serves single elderly like Miss Tan who suffers from depression and anxiety as a result of their grief and losses. By supporting our Services for Older Persons, you can help such elderly live out the rest of their lives with new meaning and purpose.