Caregivers of dementia patients, Recharge!

The momentous decision by Madam Alice Tan, 56, to give up running her spa business six months ago was triggered by a desire to care for her mother, who has severe dementia.

It has been a bittersweet journey for Madam Tan. Looking after her 80-year-old mother is a 24/7 commitment with emotionally draining responsibility that can reduce her to tears at times.

But she says she would not trade her role for the world. "I haven't been so close to my mother in over 30 years," said Madam Tan, who bathes her mother, cooks for her and sings with her.

Just a few years ago, before the onset of dementia, the daily routine for her mother, Madam Thong Yoke Yin, was a happy bustle of activity.

The sewing machine in her room was used non-stop while she sang her favourite Chinese tunes. There were also frequent excursions and karaoke sessions with her friends.

Now, the sewing machine - in mint condition - sits idle in Madam Thong's Sembawang flat. And there have been no excursions since the former seamstress was diagnosed with severe dementia about 11/2 years ago.

For caregivers like Madam Tan, focusing on the positives instead of the burden of caring for loved ones with dementia is important, said Dr Philip Yap, a senior consultant in geriatric medicine at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH). This can "serve as a buffer against the travails of caregiving", said Dr Yap, who is Madam Thong's doctor.

To help caregivers and health-care professionals find the bright side of caring for dementia patients, KTPH is organising a programme today called Caregivers Recharge! There will be talks by experts in the medical, nursing, psychology and social work fields on topics such as finding joy despite facing hardships, dealing with family conflicts and caring for elderly patients. The talks aim to "strengthen and nourish the mental strength of the caregiver", said organiser Angeline Seah, a consultant in geriatric medicine at KTPH.

Such efforts are all the more important in view of the increase in the number of dementia patients. By 2030, more than 80,000 people - or one in 15 Singapore residents aged 60 and above - are likely to suffer from the condition, which leads to memory loss and a decline in mental ability.

At KTPH, doctors see about six to eight new dementia patients a week, up from four new patients just a few years ago.

But studies have shown that there is indeed a silver lining to caregiving, said Dr Yap. A Canadian study published in 2002 found that three-quarters of nearly 300 caregivers surveyed reported at least one positive aspect to caregiving.

Dr Yap published a paper on the topic two years ago. All 12 Singaporean caregivers interviewed by his team said they had gained from the experience.

These positive gains include personal growth in areas like resilience and altruism, experiencing better relationships with their loved one and other family members, and spiritual growth, he said.

Madam Tan has felt most of these in caring for her mother. She describes the experience as a return to her childhood days, as part of a boisterous Cantonese family of nine.

During the interview with The Straits Times, Madam Thong said several times that she loved to sing. She revealed proudly that she once won awards in community centre competitions.

She started singing tunefully when the photographer shot images of her in front of her old sewing machine. The years fell away as she deftly threaded the needle and drily asked why the machine was facing the wrong way.

For Madam Tan, the most important reason why her family has never considered sending their mother to a nursing home is the strong kinship. "We want what is best for my mum, and home is the best place for her," she said with tears in her eyes.

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