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“I screamed into my pillow because I couldn’t sleep anymore” – Saving A Burnt-Out Caregiver

Crushed by the metaphorical weight of the world when her mother was debilitated by illness, Marie Koh sought urgent help from SAGE Counselling Centre. 

By Ye Suiling      16 August 2022

By most standards, Marie Koh’s parents were an exemplar of active ageing. Their busy schedule thrummed with karaoke sessions, overseas vacations and window shopping excursions. They relished the buzz surrounding openings of malls, train lines, airport terminals, even, often making a beeline for the venues on their first day of operation. 

All that ground to a halt in November of 2019, when her 80-year-old mother was afflicted by a brain virus that triggered multiple seizures. She was placed on breathing support in the intensive care unit, and the doctor actually told us that she could either pass away, wake up from her induced coma a total vegetable or be rendered immobile,” recounts Koh. 

After a white-knuckle stretch of seven days, the elderly lady pulled through, but was debilitated by her illness. Demoralised by her mobility issues that forced her to use a walking stick, she spiralled into the fog of depression. Though she – and later, her understandably distressed husband – were referred to SAGE Counselling Centre, things really came to a head the following April, when her seizures returned and once again left her incapacitated in the high-dependancy hospital ward. 

This time, her protracted deep sleep lasted for over a month. Koh, who was then her mother’s primary caregiver, floundered under the immense pressure. Not to mention the laundry list of responsibilities that she found herself saddled with. Everything was done by me, from arranging doctor’s appointments to receiving and relaying updates (on her condition), attending meetings with the medical social worker and my mother’s counsellor and receiving caregiver training in hospital. When mom was discharged she was bed-ridden, so I had to wake up at least every two hours to take her to the toilet. It was very draining,” the 50-year-old rattles off after bracing herself with a laboured sigh. 

It didn’t help that her mother’s second hospitalisation had occurred smack in the middle of a lockdown owing to the pandemic. Koh was the only family member permitted brief daily visits, by dint of much wheedling with hospital staff. For more than a month I was visiting the hospital every day then returning to calm my father down,” she shares, adding that the fretful elderly gentlemen cried everyday because he was unable to visit his wife. 

Lessons in empathy 

For Koh, witnessing her once fiercely independent mother in such a vulnerable state added an unspoken emotional dimension to the heavy lift of her duties. Her voice quavering, the 50-year-old asks for a moment to steady her nerves as she rehashes the most difficult period. 

It was very tough, I had to deal with everybody’s emotions, which was very frustrating. Not forgetting the fact that I have a family with two daughters who had to cope with the sudden disappearance of their mum because she had to look after grandma,” she reveals, adding that one of her teenaged girls was undertaking her ‘A’ levels at the time. 

Between wresting with her siblings’ differences over caregiving responsibilities, reassuring an anxious father and grinding through her arduous schedule, Koh was worn down by exhaustion. I remember a couple of times where I screamed into my pillow because I couldn’t sleep anymore. My whole system was upside down as I had to be at my parents’ beck and call,” she shares. That was the moment she knew she needed help. 

Reaching out

The fatigued caregiver turned to Melvin Wong, her mother’s appointed counsellor at SAGE, who promptly scheduled an appointment with her. This would kickstart a gradual resolution of her problems over several months of both virtual and physical counselling sessions that addressed her knotty family dynamics. 

Melvin would show me his palm and tell me that the fingers represented family members; just as not all of them aren’t the same height, we should not expect our siblings to act and think similarly. We all show filial piety differently,” she says of her takeaways from counselling. 

In the same vein, he helped her to better understand her father’s idiosyncrasies concerning his wife’s care. He helped me to acknowledge my parents’ close-knit relationship built on over 60 years of marriage; in a sense they are two individuals who have become one. He taught me how to respect my father’s wishes and love for my mother, as well as how they want to run their lives,” she explains. 

To help her arrive at these illuminating conclusions on her own terms, the astute counsellor posed empowering questions” that she would ruminate over after their sessions. 

Beyond navigating contentious interpersonal relationships, Wong also helped her to peer inwards and learn coping skills such as detaching her emotions to focus on tasks at hand. He encouraged her to lean on her religious faith and self-care regimen. 

I now make sure I have my quiet time and know how to calm myself down,” she says. This is not limited to sources of comfort – cheese, macadamia nuts and wine – alongside soothing music, brisk walking, daily meditation and devotional chanting. 

Learning to cope…and help others

Today, she says she wields these coping mechanisms as tools for facing down tricky situations. Everybody is different and I can’t necessarily change them. If we can’t come to a consensus then so be it, I will leave you alone and do what I have to,” she asserts.

Tensions on the home front have also been eased, not least for the fact that her now fully recovered mother now has a domestic helper providing caregiver duties. She expresses her emphatic gratitude towards Wong, who’s been a sounding board for her family – counselling her mother, father and herself individually, as well as facilitating an emergency family meeting at the height of their discord.  

That’s not to say it’s a picture of domestic idyll. Koh foresees bumps along the road when their helper’s contract eventually ends, but appears to be better equipped for conflict resolution. During a particularly impassioned dispute among her siblings, she’d once texted Wong outside of his office hours, in a moment of haplessness. He didn’t tell me what to do but just asked me questions. At a certain point I said I can handle it, I know what I should do, thank you, and we hung up,” she says. 

On the back of her enlightening journey, Koh has become a freelance caregiver. I decided to take on the role because I understand how it feels to be ill, as well as the anxiety their family feels. Thus, I would like to bring some comfort to them,” she concludes. 

You can help needy seniors and others like Marie who care for their aged families under SAGE Counselling, a beneficiary of the President’s Challenge, when you donate through SAFRA Cares via Giving.sg (tax deductible).

An initiative to commemorate SAFRA’s 50th anniversary, SAFRA Cares is raising funds for low income and needy families and children under the President’s Challenge, as well as servicemen disabled due to service under the SAF Care Fund. You can also donate using your NS55 credits or with your bank app (via PayNow).

Just launch your LifeSG app or bank app, and scan the QR Code below. Key in your desired amount to donate!

For more info, please visit www.safra.sg/SAFRAcares.

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