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I must take good care of mj se so I can take good care of him."

Dementia is not just memory loss. It is a disease that can wipe out a patient's personality such that he becomes just a shadow of his former self. Wong Sher Maine meets two caregivers of people with dementia and takes a hard look at how it changed their lives.



: ; JUt/AUG 2012


It is when illness strikes that wedding vows - "in sickness and in health, until death do us part" - are truly tested. When Peter Wong was struck down with dementia, his wife Rose rose magnificently to the task to give him the best of herself.

Peter W o n g was a m a n o f few w o r d s ,

T h e family sold the car a n d Peter

herself h a v i n g to navigate m e d i c a l

was brought to a doctor at a private

appointments, medication, bills a n d

healthcare institution. H e was first

even transport. " I h a d never taken the

diagnosed w i t h depression, but it was

bus because he always used to fetch

only w h e n Rose decided to b r i n g h i m

me. I didn't even k n o w what bus to

to C h a n g i G e n e r a l H o s p i t a l i n late

take to C G H , " says Rose.

2008 - he was 64 at that time — that he was diagnosed w i t h A l z h e i m e r ' s

A few times, the family tried b r i n g i n g

disease, the most c o m m o n f o r m o f

Peter to travel overseas a n d walk


a r o u n d the malls, but this stopped w h e n they lost h i m i n V i e t n a m ~

B y this time, Peter's mental faculty

they later found h i m i n a carpark

h a d already gone d o w n h i l l quite

- a n d w h e n Rose realised the two

significantly, a n d intervention d i d not

of t h e m c o u l d only visit malls w i t h

but he was the u n d i s p u t e d m a n o f

halt the steady o n w a r d m a r c h o f his

h a n d i c a p p e d toilets, w h i c h allow for

the family.

dementia. T h e p e r i o d between 2009

b o t h genders.

a n d 2010 were Rose's worst years. W o r k i n g i n a n insurance claims

I n J a n u a r y last year, Peter also suffered

department for most o f his w o r k i n g

T h e m a n whose favourite

a stroke w h i c h left his right h a n d a n d

life, he put food o n the table, relished

activities used to be p l a y i n g w i t h

leg paralysed a n d made it necessary

overseas holidays w i t h his family

his grandchildren, reading the

for h i m to be fed through a nose

d u r i n g w h i c h he thoroughly enjoyed

newspapers, w a t c h i n g television

tube. U n a b l e to cope, Rose, w i t h

posing at various tourist attractions,

programmes a n d chanting B u d d h i s t

her daughters' help, finally h i r e d a

a n d drove his wife Rose a n d two

prayers was caught i n a repetitive cycle

domestic helper last June.

daughters wherever they needed to go.

that is characteristic o f dementia.

T h e n i n 2007, he started losing his w a y

H e w o u l d continually b u y chee cheong

" T h e doctor says he's very y o u n g o n the road.

fun a n d porridge for his grandchildren, have the same fried beehoon a n d coffee

a n d the progress o f his dementia is very swift," says Rose, g l a n c i n g at Peter, w h o sits inert a n d u n m o v i n g i n

" H e w o u l d return h o m e an h o u r

at the same coffeeshop, a n d walk into

a leather recliner every day w i t h his

late a n d say he made a 'salah' t u r n , "

his r o o m just to flush the toilet.

m o b i l e left h a n d tied d o w n so he does

recounts his wife, ex-florist M r s Rose

not tug at the nose tube.

W o n g , 68, i n a n interview at her B e d o k

" H e was like a robot," says Rose. " H e

N o r t h flat where she stays w i t h Peter.

w o u l d lie there, get up to switch o n the

"I have been c r y i n g every day for the

" F o r someone w h o was a n excellent

aircon, a n d w h e n I switched it off he

last two to three years. I felt so lost.

navigator, it was a funny t h i n g to do."

w o u l d t u r n it o n . "

B u t w i t h the support o f friends w h o

S o o n after, Peter tried to reverse out o f

W i t h o u t a h e l p e r at that time, Rose

m e o n , I think I a m finally getting

a carpark lot but ended u p b u m p i n g

took it u p o n h e r s e l f to l i t e r a l l y c a r r y

m o r e used to it," says Rose, citing the

the front sides o f the car. Rose's

the p h y s i c a l b u r d e n o f h e r h u s b a n d ,

support she has received from friends

relatives also m e n t i o n e d that he was

w h o was also l o s i n g his a b i l i t y to

from the Singapore S o k a Association,

m a k i n g mistakes d u r i n g his weekly

w a l k . " I w o u l d try to c a r r y h i m i n the

a B u d d h i s t organisation.

m a h j o n g sessions w i t h them.

house f r o m one r o o m to a n o t h e r a n d

come to visit m e regularly a n d cheer

" W e h a d no idea what was w r o n g , "

we fell a few times, the b o t h o f us,"

"It took m e a few years to get here, but

she says, tearing.

the most important t h i n g for caregivers

says Rose. ' A t that time we k n e w very lntle about mental illness."

like me is to try to stay cheerful a n d Rose, w h o h a d been dependent o n

take care o f myself so I c a n take better

her h u s b a n d her entire life, also found

care o f h i m . " coring -

caring JUL/AUG 2012 I SPOTLIGHT I 9


/ was very surprised that she got dementia because she kept her mind ver\ active." > Kalthum reminisces her late mother-in-law through old photos.


Kalthum Ahmad was shocked when her mother-in-law was diagnosed with dementia as the sprightly old lady kept herself active - she devoured books, loved a game of mahjong and cards, and could churn out crochet garments in days.

It is said that people who keep themselves mentally and physically active are at lower risk of dementia.

her baking and accusing the maid of having taken her money and possessions," says Kalthum.

That is probably true in many instances but not for Madam Zubaidah. Before she was diagnosed with dementia in 2002 at the age of 80, the founding committee member of an established women's social organisation here would have qualified as a model of active ageing.

Madam Zubaidah refused to see the doctor and railed at her family members when they suggested that she consult a specialist. But Kalthum managed to get the family doctor Madam Zubaidah trusted, who referred her to Changi General Hospital's geriatric clinic, where she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

She baked regularly, voraciously read thick novels in three days flat, wore make-up and loved dressing up, played the piano, played mahjong and card games, took the train and bus on her own to Malaysia and could sew crotchet garments for her grandchildren in days.

For the next seven years, Kalthum took care of Madam Zubaidah. It was a time of challenges and tears, as she saw her fastidious mother-in-law morph into a woman who, at the end, no longer knew or cared if she was cleaned or fed, and could not even recognise her loved ones.

She was, said her daughter-in-law Kalthum Ahmad, associate director at a bank, quite a personality. "She was a very regal, composed and refined lady who kept her brain active. She was not someone to sit idle."

"She had lost track of her life," recalled Kalthum with tears in her eyes. "She would pour water into a bowl of porridge and when she wandered into my room at night, she did not know how to return to her room."

So when dementia struck, family members were none the wiser. "She started forgetting to turn off taps, using salt instead of sugar in

Kalthum learnt to go along with and not argue against her mother-inlaw's conviction that the helpers were

stealing her money and possessions - a common trait amongst dementia sufferers - and she also learnt to laugh a little. "My mother-in-law, at 90, even climbed out of a hospital bed with railings installed, and when we discovered her out of bed, we just marvelled and laughed at her ingenuity." She is thankful that the family was able to employ a full-time domestic helper for Madam Zubaidah's care, but adds: "Overall it was very emotionally straining because I was working and I had to ensure that she was well taken care of." Kalthum had the full support of her husband and family members throughout and she notes, pointedly: "When someone in the family is diagnosed with dementia, everyone should come together at least for emotional support. All I wanted to hear were kind words." In a way, Kalthum received thanks from Madam Zubaidah herself when, three days before she died, she summoned Kalthum and silently wept as she kissed and clasped Kalthum's hands, caring

O T i n g JUL/AUG 2012 ! SPOTLIGHT I 11

Dealing with Dementia  

Interviews with two caregivers of dementia patients