Coming full circle
Gary Teo was a caregiver for his mother and sister who had dementia and now he is helping clients with dementia.
Dementia is something 77-year-old Gary Teo knows quite a bit about. Five years before his mother, Lim Geok Lam, passed away in 2007, he shared that he was certain she had dementia but at the time, he wasn’t aware of it. In her 90s and living with him, Geok Lam was displaying odd habits such as pinching toilet paper at home and stuffing them in her pocket.
She also would ask for money from relatives to give to charity, even though she had money of her own. Some of this behaviour could be attributed to her past. Gary explained that his parents came from China and remembered Geok Lam as being very generous. “She would give her own money to charity and sometimes even asked for money from relatives. Her belief was that if you do good, the one above will bless you.”
But, her behaviour went further – she would complain to her relatives that she was being ill-treated and given only porridge and sauce. Gary recalled this painful time, “We had to inform our relatives not to take her word regarding the money, and with the ill-treatment, we had to ask our relatives to come over and see with their own eyes if such treatment was happening.” He was thankful that her behaviour never escalated into violence.
Gary also shared other instances – there was one time when she heard from an old friend that eating raw eggs was healthy and she believed this and ate raw eggs. “One time, the helper found egg shells in her pocket,” said the grandfather of three. Despite all this, he continued to caregive his mother till the end, deciding not to put her in a day care centre or a nursing home. Though he couldn’t understand why all this was happening, he attributed it to getting old.
However, this changed when his third sister, Alice who was in her 60s, started showing signs of having dementia after his mother passed. At first, he dismissed her behaviour as “it wasn’t so prominent”, he said. Once she misplaced her keys and Gary had to replace all her locks in her home. But her condition worsened to a point where for one week, she did not go out to buy food. “I thought to myself this cannot continue and I was worried that something bad would happen to her and no one would know as she was living alone,” he said. He then made the choice to move her in with him, with his mother’s helper assisting. As he was working at the time and was concerned to not stress the helper too much, he placed her in a day care centre five days a week.
Things however continued to get worse. Gary shared that at night, Alice would rummage through the fridge and would eat just about anything in there. He solved this by taping down the fridge. She also wandered around the house at night while the helper was sleeping in the same room as her. Like her mother, she pinched toilet paper at the day care centre until her pockets were full. “She would take the smaller rolls, take out the cardboard core, and flatten them so she could put them in her pocket,” explained Gary.
It was during one of Alice’s regular checkups with her geriatrician that he finally discovered the term “dementia” and got a clearer picture of what his mother and sister were facing. He read in the newspaper about a book called “Voices from the Heart: Living with Dementia”, a resource book for dementia patients and their caregivers, and bought it. “I would often get angry at my sister’s odd behaviour but in reading the book, I realised how to handle all of this and more.”
But with the added knowledge, there were still tough decisions that had to be made. In December 2010, Gary made the tough call to place his sister in The Salvation Army’s Peacehaven Nursing Home. During that time, Alice’s breast cancer returned after being kept at bay for 10 years. Gary continued to visit her regularly at the nursing home and attended her medical appointments.
After his sister’s passing in 2012, he never thought he would come face-to-face with dementia again. The day care centre where his sister was at asked him whether he would be interested in volunteering with them. Since he wasn’t working at the time and hence, had time to spare, he decided why not. “I had developed compassion and empathy from seeing my mom and sister, and I wanted to do my part to help.”
At the centre, he assisted in the activities, and shared with its clients (some with dementia as well as those living alone) some of his travel pictures and headlines from the newspaper to encourage them to remember the past. He continued volunteering for one year, once a week for three to four hours until he suffered from a back problem, which worsened and had to seek treatment. His volunteering then came to an end after a year.
Then in 2015, a staff from the Alzheimer’s Disease Association (ADA), who remembered him at the day care centre, asked him to volunteer at its Family of Wisdom day care centre for dementia clients. Already volunteering at the Prisons for his church, he was more than happy to take on additional work. “I was glad that they needed my help.”
Prior to the pandemic, he would tag along with the staff when needed, accompany clients to the bathroom, help with feeding the clients, and at outings, he would help the clients and their caregivers. Even though knowing more about dementia and what to expect when the condition progresses, it is still tough seeing things happen up-close. “When a client went downhill, it was very sad seeing his wife was also affected and she went into depression as she couldn’t face the reality. I really empathise with the caregiver.”
Gary hopes to continue volunteering at ADA for as long as possible. “Since we are blessed, we should bless others in caring and sharing,” he said.
“I want to show the clients there that dementia is not a death sentence. Knowing more about dementia, I also share the information with my friends. We are all blessed living up to our age and we should look forward to leaving well too. I am scared to be one of the clients and some of them are younger than me, but I have faith that I will continue to live well despite whatever happens.”