Saturday, September 27, 2008


AS SINGAPORE ages, much buzz has been generated about the importance of older folk staying active and alert.
Several high-profile public education campaigns and newly set up people’s organisations have recently had the same stirring call – active ageing. These will hopefully help babyboomers stay healthy.
But what if you are already old and ill, losing slowly what many say is life’s greatest gift of all – your memory?
The horror and heartbreak of patients and caregivers coping with dementia came alive in a myriad ways as I researched this week’s Saturday Special Report.
An estimated 25,000 are living with the condition here.
For patients, the illness can be puzzling at first. With the erasing of recent memory one of the early signs, many stricken with the condition refuse to believe anything is wrong with them.
A 57-year-old unmarried publishing executive whose mother has been living with the affliction for more than a decade, remembered how he chanced upon her wandering around Tanglin Mall one afternoon shortly after she was diagnosed.
The former washerwoman had walked there all the way from their Redhill home. When he asked her that evening what she had done the whole day, she had no recollection at all of her little escapade. Instead, she was upset that her son was concocting what she thought were terrible stories.
As time goes by, the hurt and despair can morph into anger and even violence.
A devoted daughter I interviewed has endured sleepless nights, taunts, tantrums and threats of suicide as she nurses her 79-year-old mother who has Alzheimer’s. The suicide threats were especially painful – since her clinically depressed husband – ended his life.
Others have endured physical torture – like a housewife who gets beaten up every day by her dementia-ridden husband who has the delusion that his family is stealing his money.
In home after home, caregivers old and young, rich and poor spoke as one of how hard it is to see loved ones slowly waste away.
Yet, although we now live in a world where someone is diagnosed with dementia every seven seconds, relatively few speak out about the disease in Singapore.
And although experts agree that the caregiving responsibilities of this disease are possible the heaviest – with many requiring intensive nursing care, yet lingering on for years – there aren’t too many support systems for carers here.
So how can we as individuals help stem the scourge? First, we could open our wallets and give generously to a cause that seeks to help families with loved ones who languish as the living dead. (The Alzheimer’s Disease Association is collecting funds to open a new centre at Jurong.)
Some of us could also consider volunteering our time to help patients and their families.
Experts say we may soon face a shortage of support facilities such as daycare centres for patients, especially those that cater to patients with early dementia. These centres allow family members to go work or take a breather from their caregiving duties.
There are many dedicated volunteers who are soldiering quietly to help others cope by organising support groups or raising funds.
But one example of sterling service stands out.
When she was in her 80s, retired gynaecologist Oon Chiew Seng approached the Ministry of Health to offer her services to do something to help the aged sick.
The Ministry asked her to consider setting up a nursing home for dementia patients. Nearly a decade on, Dr Oon’s Apex Harmony Lodge remains the only nursing home here that was purpose-built for dementia patients.
And although she is now older than most of the patients at the nursing home, the sprightly snowy haired woman still visits them every day, playing mahjong or just lending them a friendly ear.
“They need someone to talk to – and I have the time,” she says. “This way, they are happy and alert and so am I.”

No comments: