Best Friends Forever

As Singapore ages and family sizes shrink, spouses and paid staff will take on a bigger role in caregiving. In the second and final part of The Sunday Times Special Report on caregivers, Radha Basu catches up with caregivers who are already fulfilling those roles. 

It's a Wednesday afternoon and Madam Narayana Radha, 79, is sitting in the quiet patio of her son's Kembangan home playing word games.

"Can you find the word 'cultural'?" asks caregiver Kalpana Rae Naidu, 49, as the older woman peers at a word grid in a book in front of her. Some spell out words, others don't.

Within seconds, she finds "cultural", points to it and looks up with a silent smile.

"She can be very good at this," says a beaming Ms Naidu, a paid social caregiver. "She can even recognise the words backwards."

Just six short months ago, the two women did not know each other. These days, however, they're "BFFs" - best friends forever - laughs Madam Radha's daughter-in-law Shereen Prakash, 42.

After being diagnosed with mild Parkinson's Disease and breast cancer, Madam Radha, an English-educated housewife, was losing the will to eat, move around or socialise.

That was when Ms Shereen found Ms Naidu to engage her mother-in-law through mind games, puzzles, exercise and good old-fashioned chatting.

Ms Shereen's husband, a senior lawyer with a multinational firm, is Madam Radha's only surviving son. She also has a daughter who lives in New Zealand.

Paid social caregivers, common in the West, are rare in Singapore. Ms Naidu, 49, who is single, works for Comfort Keepers, an American homecare company that has had 800 clients here over the past five years.

She visits Madam Radha on three afternoons a week and stays for four hours each time.

Ms Shereen, a housewife, says she is busy with her two children or running errands most afternoons and cannot spend enough time with Madam Radha.

"That's when she is alone and needs someone to spend some time with her, talk to her. And that's what Rae does," she says.

The fee for a social caregiver is $68 for a three-hour session. To Ms Shereen, the service is well worth the price and a maid is no substitute.

Carers from Comfort Keepers are trained to understand the needs of the elderly, says the company's business development executive Sally Benjamin. They know what kind of exercises will help, and can minimise risk of injuries.

They also offer focused care, a big selling point to clients like Ms Shereen, who said: "Rae dedicates the time she's here totally to my mother-in-law."

Ms Naidu, a Singaporean who returned from the United States to look after her ailing father, says she enjoys caregiving. "Such services are common in the US and I think we need more such caregivers here," she says.

She said she likes "meeting Madam Radha's need for companionship". They talk about old times in Singapore.

Madam Radha also likes to inquire about her family. Ms Naidu's father has Alzheimer's Disease and she is a caregiver at home too.

Ask Madam Radha about Ms Naidu, and she pipes up in a soft voice: "She wants me to talk always. She is a friend."