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The Caregivers - From stranger to family's rock

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

"She's my arms, my legs, my eyes," says accounts executive Alice Chua gratefully, of her Indonesian maid Rokayati. "I feel so lucky to have her."

Born in Bandung and a mother of two, the helper worked in Taiwan before coming to Singapore two years ago and speaks fluent Mandarin. She looks after Ms Chua's ageing parents and two mentally challenged adult siblings at the family's Ang Mo Kio flat.

According to a study by Duke-NUS Medical School, around half of all families looking after frail old folk at home use the services of a foreign maid.

A mother of two, Ms Chua lives with her own family in Woodlands, so the day-to-day care of her parents and siblings is left entirely to the woman the family refers to affectionately as Yati.

Ms Chua's mother, retired canteen helper Yeoh Choon Kee, 70, has low IQ and a host of illnesses including schizophrenia and kidney failure. She needs dialysis thrice a week.

Her husband, retired airport worker Chua Hwa Boon, 83, has failing eyesight.

Three of the couple's six children are mentally ill. One is a long-stay patient at the Institute of Mental Health, while the other two - a son and daughter - are under Ms Yati's care.

The siblings cannot tell the time, do not know how to handle money and used to spend much of their time at home. But with Ms Yati doing the bulk of the household chores, both have started work as coffee shop helpers.

Madam Yeoh is completely dependent on Ms Yati, who showers, dresses and feeds Madam Yeoh and helps her go to the toilet. She also accompanies her to dialysis.

In two short years, the cheerful and gregarious farmer's daughter has morphed from stranger to the family's rock.

"She is the only strong and stable person there who knows what to do in emergencies," says Ms Chua.

And there have been many. Once, late last year, when Madam Yeoh began having fits, Ms Yati accompanied her to the hospital in an ambulance and stayed by her "Ah Ma" when she had to be warded.

Before Ms Yati arrived, Ms Chua would visit her parents and siblings every day to make sure they were okay.

It was "very, very tiring", she says, as she had to also juggle looking after her own two children with a full-time job.

Two earlier maids did not work out. One was spooked by Madam Yeoh's schizophrenic hallucinations. The other would bully the old folk.

"We thought we would try a new helper just one last time - and it was like winning 4-D," says Ms Chua.

Ms Yati, on her part, finds her employers to be considerate. She has her own room, even though the family lives in a three-room flat, and they ensure she gets enough rest. And she eats what they do.

While she confesses that the first few months were tough, Ms Yati says she has grown close to her beloved "Ah Ma" and the Chuas.

"If she is sick, I cry," she says. "They are all so helpless. Now I love the family."

Radha Basu

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

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