Domestic helpers: My maid, my friend

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 15, 2013 

Madam Nadarajah Rajalukshumy has told her Filipina helper Pacita Devila to apply holy ash for her if she falls ill and cannot do it herself.

The 84-year-old Hindu, who wears holy ash daily on her forehead, says: "She is like a friend, granddaughter and companion to me. I told her if I am unconscious, she must put holy ash on my forehead every day. This girl knows what to do."

Her family's helper of 20 years, Ms Devila, 50, a Catholic who is single, says she has been instructed on how to use her "second, third and fourth fingers to draw three lines across the forehead from left to right".

Performing the ritual "makes me feel the closest in the family to apachi (Tamil for grandmother)", says MsDevila. For Hindus, wearing holy ash is a mark of devotion to the Lord Shiva, says Madam Nadarajah.

The honour is less tangible than the $1 million reportedly bequeathed to Indonesian maid Sulastri last month by her employer, former principal Khoo Guat Neo, who died last year.

But it is no less precious. Madam Nadarajah is so fond of Ms Devila that when they have meals together, the employer occasionally makes an omelette for her helper "because this girl doesn't like fried eggs".

Such bonds between domestic helpers and elderly Singaporeans are a boon for their adult working children, who may be too busy to care for their parents but want to trust that they are in good hands.

A grandmother of nine, Madam Nadarajah lives with one of her four children and his family in a terrace house in Seletar.

Her daughter-in-law, Mrs Wijaykumar R. Devi, a tuition centre director who is in her 50s, says Ms Devila is family.

"She is a giving person," says Mrs Wijaykumar of the helper, who went from caring for her three children when they were young to nursing her mother-in-law after two operations for colon cancer and twisted intestines in the 1990s.

With an ageing population and some elderly wanting to live on their own, a growing number of live-in maids are being hired mainly for eldercare. Mr S.K. Shawn, 37, managing director of D'Absolute Employment Services, says that two years ago, one or two inquiries out of 10 were "specifically for eldercare". Today, half the requests are for geriatric care.

Marketing head of an IT company, Mrs Clare Teo, who is in her 40s, belongs to the "sandwich generation" of middle-aged working Singaporeans.

She and her three siblings are married with children. They either run businesses or are working professionals. She says: "It's tough to work, run your family and look after the sick elderly. You either quit work or get good help."

She and her siblings did the latter. In her seven years with the family, 43-year-old Filipina helper Nilda Asis has gone through thick and thin with her elderly charge, Madam A.P. Goh, 80.

"I took care of her from when she could walk to now, when she's in a wheelchair," says Ms Asis. "Before she lost her voice last year, she was very talkative. We played poker and listened to the radio together. Now we use our hands to talk."

Madam Goh is a grandmother of 11. She lives with her only son - Mrs Teo's brother - and his family in their private apartment in Bukit Panjang.

After she had a perforation in her stomach in 2010, Ms Asis tube-fed her for three months. She also spurred Madam Goh to return to a diet of soft foods.

Today, the two of them busy themselves with daily outings, including having chee cheong fun breakfasts, visiting attractions such as Gardens by the Bay and riding the MRT to "people watch", says Mrs Teo. Ms Asis pushes Madam Goh in her wheelchair.

Domestic workers who look after the elderly are caregivers and companions rolled into one. They do everything from turning an infirm employer to prevent bed sores to cleaning wounds.

SundayLife! found that the relationship grows closer as the employer ages and when he needs help with everyday tasks such as bathing, particularly after an illness.

These maids may shadow their elderly charges on trips to the temple or market, and sometimes to visit relatives abroad.

This is true of Ms Devila, who accompanied Madam Nadarajah on trips to Johor Baru in the mid-1990s to visit a daughter who lives there.

It takes time to build rapport. In the case of Indonesian helper Nia Karnia, 37, it came only at the halfway mark of her eight years with her employer, the late Madam Lee Wah Ying.

Initially, Madam Lee refused help in bathing or changing and brushed aside Ms Karnia's hands if she tried to hold her. But the helper, a divorcee who has a 13-year-old daughter to put through nursing school, stuck it out. She says: "Some people will not be able to take it. I told myself to be patient because she's old."

Her elderly employer "softened" as she aged. Retired lecturer Anne Chia, one of Madam Lee's nine children, calls Ms Karnia her "director of operations". Ms Chia, 58, says: "It was Karnia who was by my mother's bedside at the hospital when her breathing got shallower. She alerted us about it when we were at the visitors' lounge."

Madam Lee died of a heart attack in August. She was 91. "I cried for a month," says Ms Karnia, who had enjoyed movies and trips with Madam Lee, including one to Ms Karnia's hometown in Bandung in 2011.

She still wakes up some nights at 2am, thinking she has to change her employer's diapers. She will go on from looking after her "old baby" to a newborn in the family of Ms Chia's sister.

But not all ties work out. Mrs Teo says a previous maid, who was dismissed after a couple of months, used to beat her mother. "My mother's body had bruises. When we asked the maid, she said my mother bumped herself against the wall," says Mrs Teo.

Retired school administrative assistant Mary Ee, 76, says elderly employers should be "kind but firm". She and her 78-year-old retiree husband, who have four children, prefer to live on their own in a five-room HDB flat in Marine Parade. The grandmother of five makes sure that housework is done her way. She does not tolerate lying or helpers staying out overnight.

She was close to her former maid of six years. When her Filipino helper had her cyst removed in an operation, she "rested at home, I did the housework".

She hopes to develop a similar bond with her current Filipina helper of a month, Ms Agnes Munar, 40. Madam Ee says: "She sees to my physical needs and I see to her emotional needs. But if a maid tries to take advantage of me, I'll know what to do."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 15, 2013

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