IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

The Caregivers - Family pitches in for mum

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 22, 2013

A week after Mother's Day in 1999, Madam Mary Koh suffered a stroke that robbed her of the ability to talk, walk or take care of herself. She was then 48.

Her daughter was then studying at a university in Perth while her son was at a polytechnic.

In the early years, her husband Robert Tan cared for her with the help of a maid as the children completed their studies and started working.

Mr Tan used to own the Red House Bakery in Katong which closed when the lease expired in the early 2000s. His wife, confident and English-educated, helped make some of the bakery's treats.

"To us, she was a friend and the best role model ever," says her daughter Jaime Tan, 35.

Today she and her brother Daniel, 32, have eased themselves into much bigger roles as caregivers in a home filled with love, laughter and hope.

After years of therapy, Madam Koh, now 62, has learnt to read and write again. She is paralysed on her right side and speaks in only monosyllables. But she communicates with her ever-changing expressions.

Her daughter, a former marketing professional who spent four years in China and Britain, is taking a break from a full-time job to look after her mother.

Ms Tan commutes from the East Coast condominium that she shares with her boyfriend to her parents' five-room Bishan flat every morning to play nurse, teacher and companion. She helps bathe, dress and chat with her mother, and supervises her as she uses educational apps on an iPad.

In the evenings, her brother Daniel takes over. He monitors his mother's medication and watches TV with her. Sometimes, he clips her nails and helps her do exercises before bed.

Ms Tan says he and her father are her ever-present "caregiver support group".

"It's so reassuring to know that I have at least two family members to depend on with mum's care. It's impossible to do it alone," she says.

Her father, 63, has several health conditions, including heart disease and diabetes. With his children taking on more of the caregiving, he is beginning to enjoy his retirement, spending time with friends.

When The Sunday Times visited their home, Madam Koh was finishing her breakfast, a smoked turkey sandwich. She laboriously picked it up with her left hand and with slow, jerking movements, took small bites.

"There are so many little things we take for granted," Ms Tan says, as she watches her mother quietly. "I've been forced to learn empathy."

Her caregiving philosophy, she says, centres on not regarding her mother as a child. "We still treat her as the strong, independent woman she once was."

Madam Koh has a daily roster of activities planned by her daughter. She goes to a day-care centre once a week, and has speech therapy and physiotherapy around five times a month. And she loves shopping and going out for meals.

Her bright pink iPad is a Mother's Day gift from Daniel. Brows furrowed, she jabs the screen repeatedly to fill in each blank of a word-making program to spell simple words like "table", "ice" and "crayons".

Each time an automated voice announces "well done", she giggles, eyes lighting up with the joy of achievement.

When her daughter gently asks her whether the word "necklace" should end with an "e" - she scowls indignantly.

"That's her saying, 'Of course it should, you silly girl'," laughs Jaime. "She may not be able to speak well, but her personality still burns as brightly as before."

Radha Basu

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 22, 2013

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