My late mother had dementia. Focused on my career as an IT professional then, I didn’t notice her gradual cognitive decline. She would awaken in the middle of the night to rearrange the pots and pans in the kitchen and afternoon naps became an almost daily affair. Her irregular meal times, accusing my helper, Sanda when her things went “missing” and some uncharacteristic behaviour were simply dismissed as part of ageing. Sadly, these were the tell-tale signs of dementia.
I have fond memories of my mother. We grew closer when she moved in with me in 1996 when I was expecting my first child. I was living alone as my husband was working overseas then. Before moving to Singapore, she resided in Sydney with my sister, as she had separated from my father who was still living in Kuala Lumpur, for more than 10 years.
I was 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. When she stayed with me, I remember her perching on the balcony every evening to wait for me to come home. My heart swelled with happiness as I felt loved by mother then. My mother would help to care for my daughter so that I could concentrate on work. When I returned, I would take over while she cooked dinner.
I hired my domestic helper, Sanda after my daughter was five months old. My son was born a year later. As Sanda learnt to cook some of the local dishes, I told my mother to rest more and let the helper do the cooking. Her cooking responsibility was gradually relinquished to Sanda. I thought I was being thoughtful but this resulted in her feeling less needed. Sadly, I only realised this many years later, which by then, was irreversible.
As the children grew and became more independent, they stopped appreciating my mother fussing over them. Their fondness for Sanda grew too and my mother became more disengaged. The distancing worsened after we moved from a cosy three-bedroom apartment, into a landed property, with the privacy afforded by the bigger space.
Our landed home didn’t have easy access to bus services so Sanda took over the grocery shopping. This was an activity my mother had enjoyed as it gave her the opportunity to catch up with the stall holders at the market and food centre.
Slowly, dementia crept in like a silent thief.
My mother’s new-found ‘hobbies’ of collecting leaves from the ground and keeping them in her pyjama pocket, walking into the garden barefoot and placing her dirty feet on the sofa, and feeding the pigeons who would leave their droppings on the roof and floor began to irritate my husband. These resulted in frequent conflicts between him and my mother and subsequently between us.
Eventually my mother went to Sydney to spend time with my siblings but that didn’t work either. My sister then arranged for her to stay with an unmarried aunt in Ipoh. My mother agreed but was heartbroken and she eventually suffered a mild stroke. I suspect she suffered from depression prior to the stroke.
I brought her back to Singapore and placed her in an aged home. I told myself that this was a better arrangement as she would have companionship and a healthier lifestyle with a regular sleep and meal routine. As my then office was nearby, I visited her a few times weekly.
Deep down, I could sense she felt abandoned and was deeply hurt as none of her four children who were all financially stable would have her in their homes. The guilt eventually led me to leave my marriage, move into an apartment, hire a helper and have my mother live with me.
Making these decisions was difficult and extremely painful. I couldn’t bear for my mother to remain in an aged home in her twilight years. More than anyone, I knew her sacrifices, including relocating to Singapore for me when I needed her. The marital split compounded with years of resentment, guilt and self-blame resulted in my own depression.
In the last year of her life, her cognitive decline took a sharp dip. 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 her life devoid of purpose. I realised that no matter how old we are, our life is meaningful only if we feel useful and needed.
Instead of condemning the darkness, I chose to light a candle. I started Brahm Centre, a charity to empower individuals to create their own happiness. I hope that my story spurs you to ensure your parents continue to feel useful and needed as they age.
If you struggle to understand your ageing parents, I hope this article encourages you to continue to engage, forgive and embrace your parents – as they are.
The contributor is the CEO & Mindfulness Principal of the Brahm Centre.