Thursday, 7 May 2020

When kindness towards my mother was not kind

I relieved my mother of her daily duties without knowing how vital it is for our parents to find purpose in old age
By Angie Chew, The Straits Times, 4 May 2020

My mother came to live with me in Tanjong Katong when I was pregnant with my first child in 1996.

I was living alone, as my husband then was working overseas. Before moving to Singapore, my mother lived in Sydney with my sister, as she had been separated from my father, who was still living in Kuala Lumpur, for more than 10 years.

I still recall her perching on the balcony in the evening, waiting for me to come home by bus, after I stopped driving when my abdomen was too big to fit behind the steering wheel.

My walk to the apartment every evening from the bus stop was filled with happiness, as I felt loved by my mother at that time.

I had been cared for by a nanny as I was growing up, so I couldn't recall my mother hugging or kissing me when I was young.

We were never close, but we got along very well after she moved in. My mother was a woman of few words with her children and was never demanding.

I am very grateful to her for helping me care for my daughter. I was able to return to work without worrying, knowing she was safe in my mother's arms. I would take over the childcare when I got home from work, while my mother cooked dinner.

I hired a domestic helper only after my daughter was five months old and my son was born a year later.

Sanda arrived from Sri Lanka and stayed with us for 10 years. She became part of the family.

As Sanda learnt to cook some local dishes, I told my mother to rest and let the helper do more of the cooking. Her cooking responsibility was gradually relinquished to Sanda.

I thought I was being kind, but this resulted in my mother feeling less needed - something which I sadly realised only many years later and was, by then, irreversible.

As the children grew up and became more independent, they stopped appreciating my mother fussing over them.

Their fondness for Sanda grew as well and my mother became more disengaged.

The alienation worsened after we moved into a landed property from a small three-bedroom apartment.

Living in a bigger home resulted in more space for everyone, but it also meant we became more distant, as each of us would retreat to our respective rooms after meals. We were a lot closer when we shared living spaces in a small abode.

I was focused on my career and didn't notice the decline in my mother's cognition as dementia crept in.

As it was no longer convenient for her to go to the market, with no easy bus access from the landed property estate, Sanda took over the grocery shopping.

This, too, was an activity my mother had thoroughly enjoyed, as it gave her the opportunity to catch up with the stallholders at the market's food centre.

Her cognitive decline was gradual. Her waking up in the middle of the night at 3am to rearrange the pots and pans in the kitchen and then taking afternoon naps - which became an almost daily affair - as well as irregular mealtimes, accusing Sanda when her things went "missing" and other out-of-character behaviour were all simply attributed to her ageing.

These were, in fact, telltale signs of dementia.

When I took her back to Sydney for a visit, her mahjong friends there were so offended by something she uttered that they didn't want to play mahjong with her anymore.

The same happened in Kuala Lumpur as well when she went to visit her friends there.

I did find it strange, as my mother was usually very diplomatic. But, again, I just thought that was what ageing did to people - they became grumpy and difficult.

My husband was also getting irritated by her "new interests" in collecting leaves from the ground and keeping them in her pyjama pockets, walking into the garden without footwear and placing her dirty feet on the sofa, and feeding pigeons which would leave lots of droppings on the roof and floor.

These became regular sources of conflict between him and my mother, and then between us.

Eventually, it resulted in my mother going to Sydney to spend some time with my siblings.

That didn't work out either. My sister then arranged for my mother to stay with her unmarried sister, our aunt, in Ipoh.

My mother agreed to this, but was heartbroken and eventually suffered a mild stroke. She had most likely suffered from depression prior to the stroke.

I brought her back to Singapore, but couldn't bring her back to stay in the house. She was placed in an aged care home.

I convinced myself this was a better arrangement. She would have companionship and a healthier lifestyle with a regular sleep and meal routine.

I visited her a few times a week, as my office then was close to home. Deep down, I could sense she felt abandoned and was deeply hurt. She had four children who were all financially secure, but none of us would put her up in our homes.

The guilt eventually led me to leave the marriage, move into an apartment, hire a helper and, finally, bring my mother back to live with me.

Reaching each of these decisions was difficult and extremely painful. But I couldn't bear for my mother to remain in an aged care home in her twilight years. More than anyone, I knew deeply her sacrifices, including relocating to Singapore for me when I needed her help.

The marital split, compounded by years of resentment, guilt and self-blame resulted in my own depression.

In the last year of her life, my mother's cognitive decline accelerated. She fell one morning, suffered a hip fracture and died two weeks after her hip-repair surgery.

I regretted not having taken better care of her. I regretted taking away responsibilities that meant a lot to her. I thought I was being kind, but I had hurt her feelings and she had felt purposeless.

I realised that no matter how old we are, our lives are meaningful only if we feel useful and needed.

I couldn't rewrite my history. Instead, I started a charity to help others write happier chapters in their own lives.

I hope my story will spur you to ensure your parents continue to feel useful and needed as they age, especially during this period of strict social distancing measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, as some seniors may feel a lack of purpose when relieved of childcare or household responsibilities.

If you are floundering when it comes to understanding your ageing parents, I hope this article encourages you to continue your efforts to engage, forgive and embrace your parents as they are.

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