Love sandwich

The Fifth Malaysian Population and Family Survey by the National Population and Family Development Board Malaysia in 2022 revealed that 70 per cent of elderly Malaysians live with extended family.

May 10, 2024

Word in Progress - Karen-Michaela Tan

If you are around the age of 40, you probably belong to the Sandwich Generation of middle-aged adults who are still actively raising children while increasingly assuming the responsibilities of care for ageing parents. It can be daunting to no longer be able to rely on help from our own parents, and instead, become their drivers, schedule-keepers, and face it, naggers of both the young and the old.

The Fifth Malaysian Population and Family Survey by the National Population and Family Development Board Malaysia in 2022 revealed that 70 per cent of elderly Malaysians live with extended family.

Eight out of ten elderly parents receive financial assistance from their children, with 48 per cent of children paying their parents’ bills, while 67 per cent help to buy food and other household goods for aged parents. This is a daunting burden of care, from every perspective.

I began to feel it keenly myself when my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson and Alzheimer’s. Because my parents lived alone, just out of my allowed radius of travel due to COVID lockdown restrictions, my father was left to care for her on his own. He was 78, mum was 75.

Dad was a real trooper; feeding his spouse, shuffling her to the bathroom whenever she needed, diapering her at night and changing her from night clothes to day wear in the morning. Theirs was the epitome of ‘for better and for worse’. He only allowed me to hire a day nurse to assist in the more mundane tasks of sitting with mum while he went out grocery shopping. Otherwise, his social life shrank to nothing. Dementia-stricken mum did not know what was going on, but my friendly, outgoing father withered during this time. When he finally decided to place mum in a care home, my brother and I had to ensure the place we selected would be somewhere my father would be at peace to relinquish mum into. The discovery of Graceland, in the hills of Petaling Jaya, was a blessing. From the ownership, care team, house set-up, engaging daily schedules, and resident tortoises and dogs, the siblings immediately knew dad would approve.

The financial outlay could have wrecked us though. A monthly commitment to care and lodging, the purchase of medication and care items, all made a dent in our already COVIDdepleted savings. Yet, the space to breathe that it afforded my dad was worth teetering on the brink of insolvency. Without having to be on high alert all the time, dad regained his positive outlook on life. When he was her primary caregiver, his prayer every day was for God to let him live long enough to care for his wife. Once mum was at Graceland (managed by a wonderful Catholic who arranged for regular communion for the patients), the shackles of guilt dad had placed on himself were unlocked.

He still prepared a meal and visited every day to feed his wife, and pray with her, but he could also reclaim his lunches with friends, and take time to amble the hypermarkets which he loved.

My mother’s death in July 2023 was not the end of my responsibilities though. While my father is healthy and mobile, I now increasingly have the care of my 87-year-old mother-inlaw. As her only Catholic relative, the duty of ensuring her weekly Mass attendance falls to me.

Annemarie is an exceptional mother-in-law. This woman and her Legion of Mary friends went to my wedding dinner venue early, and placed maraschino cherries and mint leaves in each of the 300 water glasses to make my medieval-themed wedding more festive.

She also, when the sixth month of pregnancy elapsed without my beginning to ‘nest’, took it upon herself to transform the guest room into the nursery. When my mothering instincts didn’t quite emerge upon birth, it was my mumin- law and husband who took care of the baby.

I must confess that post the care of my mother, my mother-in-law’s slightly erratic behaviour – constant repetition of stories, her incorrect interpretation of some situations – wearied me. I had just come out of an emotionally gruelling parental situation and did not feel I had it in me to take on another ageing parent. But the abrupt way my husband treated his mother made my heart ache. Despite the fact that I was exhausted from the years of my mother’s dementiafuelled conversations, I felt I had to saddle up once again and ride the white horse of rescue back into the fray.

These days I find myself in a rather interesting sandwich. My mother-in-law comes to church with my father, daughter and I, and she has Saturday dinner with us. Her eccentricities make my dad roll his eyes, but I know my father is proud that I am repaying my in-law’s kindness.

In doing this I find myself in the company of one of the Bible’s best examples of filial piety, the Moabess Ruth who, after her husband’s death, chose to stay with her mother-in-law in a strange land, in spite of Naomi’s advice for both her widowed daughters-in-law to return to their respective homelands.

Each time when I feel stretched to my emotional limits caring for my in-law, I remind myself of her kindness to me, and her continued good-natured acceptance of her life as it is now. Her God is my God, and while our lives do not emulate Ruth 1:16 – 17 exactly (Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die — there will I be buried.), I can understand the frustration of an older person having to relinquish control of many aspects of their lives to those they depend on. Knowing how badly I myself would react to that, I strive to ensure my care for her honours the good deeds of her past, and the dignity that people of advanced age are still worthy of. 

(Karen-Michaela Tan is a poet, writer and editor who seeks out God’s presence in the human condition and looks for ways to put the Word of God into real action)

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