ELDERLY CAREGIVER

Caregiver to wife till her death, and now son

As Singapore ages and family sizes shrink, spouses and children will take on a bigger role in caregiving. In the second and final part of a special report on caregivers, The Sunday Times catches up with two caregivers who are already fulfilling those roles.

For eight long years, retiree Lim Ping Kiong, 77, tended gently to the daily needs of his bedridden wife, Madam Gan Siew Geong.

The mother of four lost the ability to talk, laugh and walk after two brain tumour operations in 2005.

Her husband of nearly 50 years sponged and dressed her and changed her diapers daily. At meal times, he fed her through a tube.

Madam Gan died in her sleep late last month, aged 74.

"She was in hospital first and then at a community hospital for half a year," said Mr Lim. "Finally, the doctors said there was not much they could do. You can just take her home."

In recent months, as his wife's condition deteriorated, the retired taxi driver learnt to clear her phlegm with the help of a nasal tube and tend to her bed sores.

When The Sunday Times visited shortly before her death, Mr Lim was in the midst of cleaning and feeding her. "I change her every three hours to keep her clean and comfortable," he said, as he gently wiped her face with a moist towel.

When Madam Gan was alive, he slept fitfully, waking when she coughed. "I worry about her choking on the pipe," he said.

Local studies show about one in 10 caregivers in Singapore - about 21,000 people - is aged 74 or older.

A Home Nursing Foundation nurse visited monthly since early this year, after a referral by Tan Tock Seng Hospital, where Madam Gan was warded briefly.

Mr Lim has high blood pressure, and the caregiving routine was tough but he was unwilling to put his wife in a nursing home.

"No, cannot," he said tersely, when asked the question weeks before she died. "If she wants to go, I want her to go at home. Nicely."

In the end, Madam Gan was hospitalised for a few days before she died. "I am relieved she is at peace now," he said.

But his caregiving days are not over yet.

Fate dealt the family a cruel hand. A motorcycle accident in the early 1990s left Mr Lim's second son, who lives with him, partially paralysed. He works in the social service sector and uses a wheelchair. For the past eight years, Mr Lim, who does the housework, has helped his son, in his 40s, bathe, dress and empty his bowels with the help of suppositories nightly.

"When she was well, she used to be my son's main caregiver," he said of his wife. "She would cry at his condition but never complain."

These days, he wakes up at 5.30am to get his son ready for work. "It takes time as I am not as strong or as quick as I used to be."

When his son is working, Mr Lim catches up on housework and sleep. In the evenings, he cooks or buys a big meal for his son. "He only eats once a day as he tries not to go to the toilet when he is at work."

On getting a maid, he said: "You all ask me to get a maid. How can? Who's going to support me?"

His two daughters have low- paid jobs at a fast-food restaurant. His eldest son, who works overseas and has his own family, regularly sends him money. Mr Lim said: "He already helps us a lot. I cannot ask for more."

His blood pressure is high, and Mr Lim worries he might collapse from sheer exhaustion one day. "But, what to do? I don't have a choice," he said. "My younger son needs help. So I must carry on."

radhab@sph.com.sg