The weight of caregiving on her thin shoulders
Mdm Ong and her husband made plans to travel around the world after he retires. A full-time homemaker who dedicated all her life to her family, she had not had the chance to go further than Sentosa. She had been looking forward to seeing the cherry blossoms in Japan, and the Great Wall in China.
Life changed after the stroke
Alas, life does not always go as planned. 2 years before he was due to retire, Mdm Ong’s husband suffered a stroke. In that stroke, her life turned topsy turvy, dashing all their dreams and plans of a happy retirement life.
Mdm Ong’s husband had to quit his job. They downgraded from a 4-room flat to a studio apartment and lived frugally on the sale proceeds and CPF Life payouts.
Caregiving completely took over her life
Her husband’s stroke left him half-paralysed, wheelchair-bound with speech impairments and totally dependent on Mdm Ong for his activities of daily living. He used to be unable to speak completely and Mdm Ong has to guess his needs. With rehabilitation, he can speak vaguely and has become more stable. He could walk without aid at home initially, but after a fall, he became unwilling to walk and now he can no longer walk.
As his sole caregiver, Mdm Ong takes care of his physical needs – bathing, mobility transfers, exercises, and medications. She is a woman of small stature compared to his 1.8m frame. Showering her husband every evening would leave her completely exhausted and drenched with perspiration. This is on top of handling the household chores such as meals preparation, marketing, cooking, laundry, and cleaning the house. She constantly keeps an eye on him to prevent injuries or accidents and wakes up several times to check on him at night. Her days became occupied with bringing him for medical appointments and rehabilitation, including going to TCM services 3 times a week.
Every day, Mdm Ong will urge her husband to exercise to maintain his flexibility, including standing up for periods of time and training his ability to transfer on his own. She expects him to be able to do more on his own, instead of relying on her all the time.
Mdm Ong carried the weight of caregiving upon her own shoulders. She has no help because there is no one to help her. The couple did not have any children, and their siblings live far away and have their own lives to take care of.
Furthermore, as the eldest of her family, Mdm Ong does not wish to burden her siblings. At times when she needed to attend her own medical appointments, she had no choice but to leave him alone at home. Fortunately, there have not been any accidents.
She has considered the option to either employ a helper or for husband to go to day care, so that she can get some respite. However, they decided against both, as they were worried about the finances and the stress of managing a helper.
Even for a strong and determined person like Mdm Ong, the stress of caregiving gradually pushed her to a breaking point. Her sense of responsibility and love for her husband were her saving graces. Nonetheless she has been exhausted by caregiving for the past seven years. She felt her body and strength deteriorating sharply. When she pushes her husband around in his wheelchair, she gets breathless easily and her arthritic knees hurt badly.
Her 67th birthday passed by like any other day, hustling around her husband and the daily chores. She did not see birthdays as worth celebrating. She said she has always been in poor health since she was young, and life is suffering to her. In her 67 years of life, she could not see any achievements worth celebrating. She dreads continuing the rest of her life taking care of her husband and with her health failing.
As her mood deteriorated, she felt fatigued, easily irritated, anxious and in a low mood, with no interest in going out or doing what she likes. She would cry more often, especially on dark and rainy days. She stopped pursuing her hobbies such as reading newspapers and going to the library or reading recipe books and gave away all her baking tools and recipe books. Every day, her life evolved only around her husband and the household, which takes up most of her time and energy.
Some days, she felt like giving up. She gets easily frustrated when she feels that her husband is not cooperating and causing her more work. She would feel like hitting him to motivate him or killing herself when she could not bear it anymore. External events that do not go smoothly will trigger her anxiety. For example, if they could not get into the lift at the MRT station, she would become very agitated that they might run late for their medical appointment.
O’Joy steps in to help
Mdm Ong recognized that she is suffering from burnout from caregiving and was referred to O’Joy for counselling. O’Joy’s counsellor Yat Peng visited Mdm Ong and provided counselling to manage her anxiety and depressive symptoms. She also taught Mdm Ong breathing techniques to manage her anger.
Over the 5 years that O’Joy has been serving Mdm Ong, Yat Peng has journeyed with her through her various big and small challenges. Whenever she runs into obstacles in daily life, she can get flustered easily. She is grateful that Yat Peng has always been there to support her, for example during Covid-19 pandemic, or finding respite care for her husband when she needs to be hospitalized after her knee surgery, accompanying her to buy a new wheelchair for her husband when the old one broke down, or liaising with the mobile provider on the renewal of her home Wi-fi.
A volunteer para-counsellor is matched to Mdm Ong, visiting her every month. The old couple enjoys the company of the volunteer, and they often share conversations about plants and pets.
Mdm Ong continues to meditate every morning, and it helps to relax her and helps set a good tone for the day. She spends one hour stretching in the evening before sleeping. She sees the importance of taking care of her own health by making sure she goes to see her doctor and takes her medication as prescribed. She also goes to the TCM doctor to relieve her aches and pains and takes time to cook her TCM medications. She tries to stay well herself so that she can take care of husband for as long as she can.
Mr and Mrs Ong still have a very loving relationship. He is her life, and she sees him as her responsibility. They want to spend their life together as long as they can. To Mdm Ong, she does not see herself as remarkable and extraordinary. She is doing something she needs to do. She cares and worries about his every condition. Every day, she makes sure that they eat well. Every night, they relax and watch tv, enjoying their happy jokes and moments together.
Although the old couple are not completely out of the woods, they can now better manage their lives. Mdm Ong knows she can turn to O’Joy for help when she needs to, and Yat Peng continues to monitor their changing needs regularly.
* The names, photos, and some details in this story have been changed to protect the privacy and confidentiality of the client.
O'Joy serves elderly caregivers like Mdm Ong to help them manage the stress of caregiving. Such support can often persists for months or years. By supporting our Services for Older Persons, you can help such elderly caregivers live out the rest of their lives with hope and peace of mind.