Kind helper bonds with ah ma

My grandmother died a few weeks ago. She went very peacefully, in the comfort of home, at the grand old age of 96.

Ah ma, as we called her in Teochew, was diagnosed with dementia nearly 20 years ago, and she also had Parkinson's disease, which meant that her motor skills eventually degenerated and that she moved from being wheelchair-bound to bedridden.

We started hiring domestic helpers who had the physical strength to help her move around and use the shower and bathroom. She eventually became completely uncommunicative verbally - she could not hold conversations or express how she felt.

This was around the time we hired our final domestic helper, a young woman from Indonesia named Yuli. She had never worked abroad. She giggled incessantly at first when my mother taught her how to care for my grandmother and how to do basic household chores.

But she was sweet and earnest - and despite having no common language with which to connect with my grandmother emotionally, Yuli grew very fond of her.

When my grandmother was admitted to the hospital last month for developing an auto-immune disease, Yuli was deeply worried. She approached my mother and asked if she could give her $100 for my grandmother's hospital fees.

My mother declined this, of course. The amount was nearly 20 per cent of Yuli's pay, a huge sacrifice for a young woman supporting a family back home.

Earlier this week, I watched a video put together by my colleagues at The Straits Times Digital team about 60-year-old Richard Ashworth, who had hired a male helper from Myanmar to care for his elderly adopted father John, 81, who had dementia.

The younger Ashworth said, teary-eyed and voice cracking, that he had considered suicide because he just could not cope with the demands of caring for his father, whose behaviour was getting more and more difficult to manage - even turning violent.

Laminn Koko, the young man from Myanmar that Mr Ashworth had hired, was disappointed at the standards of the nursing homes they visited, and said he could take care of Uncle John better on his own.

He said: "I told my boss - I'm still here. I can take care of both Uncle John and you."

There is a gratitude I am not sure I will ever know how to express to the men and women who treat our grandparents - and parents - like their own.

When the undertaker and his assistants arrived to take my grandmother's body and prepare it for the funeral, Yuli cried silently, standing vigil by the doorway, shoulders shaking in quiet sobs. She scrolled through pictures of herself and my grandmother that she had taken on her mobile phone.

In her broken English, she told us, haltingly: "Ah ma and ah kong (grandfather) are together now."

Yuli reminded me of humanity's ability to look past the borders of culture, nationality, skin colour and language, to be able to adopt another person as part of our own emotional family - moving from the divide of employee-employer to the realm of kith and kin.

My youngest sister, who is 19, rarely had the chance to communicate with my grandmother in her lifetime; the past decade of ah ma's life was spent drifting in and out of lucid moments. She told me wistfully: "It's so strange - ah ma is my biological grandmother, but Yuli is closer to her than I ever was."

I, too, felt a deep twinge of guilt and regret. I had been so fixated on how I would never be able to communicate with my grandmother - she spoke only Teochew and I spoke none - that I had forgotten about how to connect with her by simply being there. Holding her hand. Taking her out for some fresh air.

So many of the domestic helpers who flock to Singapore in search of a better life eventually form deep bonds with the people they meet here. Their employers, initial strangers, soon become the bedrock of their new life.

These helpers might live with a single family for years and years, watching the children in their care grow up, or they might, like Yuli, spend a short but intense period with the employer.

Yuli has since changed employers - she will be caring for another elderly woman with dementia.

I wish her all the best, and I hope she will bring as much kindness and generosity to her new family as she did mine.

This article was first published on September 21, 2014.
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