This article first appeared on New Straits Times.
MALAYSIA, 12 MAY 2019 – UNSUNG heroes. That’s what they are. And yet, they’re the ones who remain at their care’s bedside long after everyone else has gone. And in the darkness of the night, their shadows flit from bed to bed, checking and monitoring, making sure that nothing is amiss. Concern and compassion are perpetually wreathed on their faces. Now does that sound like someone you might know?
Our own mothers. Our forever nurses. While today marks Mother’s Day, it’s also a day that celebrates nurses (caregivers) around the world for their contribution to societies. International Nurses Day honours these oft-forgotten women (and men) who play their role silently without fuss nor fanfare. Incidentally, it’s also the birth anniversary of the English social reformer and founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale.
In a nod to this special day, two nurses/caregiving professionals from Homage, a personal home care platform that connects qualified caregivers to families who need help, whether it’s elderly care recipients or people going through chronic illnesses, share their stories.
Prabjoth Kaur – Care Specialist
A graduate of Sime Darby College of Nursing, Prabjoth Kaur (“you can call me Jo”) started her career in the field in 2010. She worked at Sime Darby Hospital for five years where most of her care recipients comprised the elderly. “Then I decided to broaden my horizon and got myself a job in Saudi Arabia, where I stayed for three years,” shares Jo, before adding that in Saudi, she dealt with royal VIP patients and their extended families.
Smiling, the registered nurse who works as a Care Specialist at Homage recalls: “Most of them were quite old. Above 70. We even had patients who’d been in the same ward for more than two years.” Her first six months was spent as a bedside nurse where she enjoyed direct contact with the patients. Jo subsequently accepted the role of a charge nurse where she oversaw the general operations.
“There was a lot of engagement with the elderly,” continues the 30-year-old. “Many of our patients were suffering from dementia, stroke, and the likes. We always used to joke that our ward was more like a geriatric ward!”
After three years in Saudi, the Perak-born nurse made the decision to return to Malaysia. “When I got back, I did some serious thinking about where I was going with my career,” shares Jo, adding: “In the end, I decided that having been in the hospital setting for eight years already, it was time to do something different. So I ventured into home nursing because I wanted something more holistic.”
Ultimately, she was looking to build a one-on-one relationship with her care recipients, something that wasn’t possible in a conventional hospital setting where the volume of patients to a nurse was just too high.
SOURCE OF INSPIRATION
And that’s when she decided to be a part of Homage. Now in her ninth month with the team, Jo’s role is to oversee and ensure high quality and safety standards of care services by Homage Care Professionals. Her eyes light up when she talks about her experience.
“Being an expert in this area of my profession will benefit me in the long run, and also my environment,” says Jo, adding: “My parents are in their late 50s but I also have in-laws who are in their 60s and 70s. Growing up, I never had the chance to enjoy the presence of grandparents; my mum’s parents were abroad, and my dad’s (parents) weren’t around. The elderly that I look after get to become my ‘adopted’ grandparents!”
Unlike those who view caring for the elderly as a challenging undertaking, Jo takes it all in her strides. Although she doesn’t deny that it’s not always a bed of roses, the sense of fulfilment that she derives from looking after them far outweighs the negatives.
“There’s something really wonderful about being with these elderly folks,” muses Jo, her eyes lighting up. “For example, their mindset. It’s nothing like ours. We always want things so fast; for them, it’s about taking things slowly and just enjoying the moment. And you can imagine the wealth of experience they have to share!”
Her smile wide, Jo adds that the one thing she enjoys most about being in their company is the stories. “Old people are great storytellers!” she exclaims delightedly. “They’ve lived in a world and a time that’s so different from ours. We read history from books but some of them have lived through it. And you can’t help but be inspired because despite all the adversity, they continue to survive.”
Looking thoughtful, Jo adds: “I learn a lot from being around them. I’m nursing them for their condition but in return, I get inspired.”
When it’s not a bed of roses, you just have to persevere and be patient, advises Jo. Some elderly people, she elaborates, have been independent all their lives and it’s tough for them to relinquish that sense of independence. Shares Jo: “Most will have their routine and of course, they don’t like for it to be interrupted. And that’s when they put up resistance. For example, it can get very challenging to try and get them to take their medication.”
So she has to spend time and energy talking and pacifying them until they submit. And this can be quite draining, she admits. “It’s like trying to pacify a child who just doesn’t understand.” With a bemused smile, Jo, who loves to dance in her spare time, adds that in her early days as a young nurse, she used to get very angry whenever the elderly in her charge resisted taking their medicine.
Sometimes you’re also dealing with seniors who are carrying a lot within them, continues Jo, who actually aspired to be a lawyer growing up. “They have all these pent up emotions. And you know it would take some time to get them to open up to you.”
But as she grew in her career, Jo, whose oldest care recipient is 98, began to understand that it wasn’t their fault. “It was actually up to me to find a way to reach out to them. So I learnt some techniques on how to handle the elderly and applied them whenever the situation arose. Things became more manageable after that!”
She learnt the importance of controlling her facial expressions, tone of voice and mannerisms. “Seniors are really fragile,” elaborates Jo, adding: “They tend to close up very fast if they feel that you’re showing or exhibiting displeasure so it’s important to maintain a smile. Also, come in as their ‘friend’ and ensure they understand that. It’s a lot easier for them to open up to you in this capacity rather than when you push yourself as one of the family.”
Asked for the single important lesson she’d learnt from working with the elderly, Jo, the eldest of three siblings, replies: “The importance of enjoying and valuing your life and the people dearest to you. Some of them tell me that they used to spend all their waking life working and neglecting the things that matter. And in the end, it all comes to this. You can’t take anything with you to the grave!”
Her expression earnest, Jo, whose father is a policeman and mum, a home-maker, adds softly: “Find time to enjoy your parents and look after them. In my profession, I’ve seen far too many children neglect their aged parents, either because they can’t handle them or regard them an inconvenience. It’s very sad. They don’t realise just how much of a treasure their parents are.”
A pause ensues as we both contemplate her statement. I’m the first to break the silence, with another question: What’s your ultimate dream? Jo looks up with a smile before replying: “To be able to provide home nursing for those who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford it. One day, if I can make enough money, I want to be able to do something not only for the aged, but also the homeless. I want people to remember me for having done something meaningful for the less fortunate.”
Chan Kuan Hong – Care Professional
The Johor-born Chan Kuan Hong started his nursing career in 2010 after graduating with a diploma in nursing. The 31-year-old shares that when he first started, he was working in the operations theatre department of several hospitals in Kuala Lumpur, assisting with surgeries, preparing sets, and taking care of patients before and after surgical cases. This he did for eight years.
This registered nurse joined Homage in November of last year, upon a friend’s recommendation. Recalls Chan: “I’d gotten tired of working in the operations theatre, being on call and so on. It wasn’t easy. The hours were long and the shifts were challenging. When Homage came along, together with the possibility of trying my skills at working with the elderly in addition to nursing procedures, I jumped at the chance.”
As a Homage Care Professional, Chan has helped many families care for seniors, especially those with dementia (a group of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or thinking skills) and Alzheimer’s. “I go to their home and keep them company,” he elaborates, before adding: “I feel sad when I see this group of people because most often than not, their family members don’t really want to take care of them.”
So what he does, through his visits, is to slowly engage the whole family in the care process. Smiling, Chan shares: “There’s this one uncle in my care who has Parkinson’s. He likes drawing so I always encourage him to draw. I even get his family members to play games with him so that they can have “moments” together. I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing the bonding take place.”
At the end of the day, continues Chan, it’s about raising the awareness on how to communicate with each other. “I come in as a support system for the family so that they can have some respite but that’s not to say that they can totally let go and not play a part. Family support is very important and everyone needs to be involved.”
PART OF THE JOB
Caring for elderly people suffering from dementia is no walk in the park. But Chan does his best to maintain his calm. Chuckling, he shares: “I used to get so frustrated and all I wanted to do was just shout. But of course, I can’t. There’s this one uncle that I care for who absolutely refused to shower and it had been two weeks. Just last week, I was finally able to get through and he actually showered!”
With all the stresses that he has to manage, Chan is grateful to have outlets for him to vent. He shares: “The Homage team is there to listen to my frustrations. And there’s also a dementia caregiving centre, which the elderly goes to, where the management team also offer emotional support.”
Smiling broadly, he confides that he actually went to Morib after a particularly trying day. “I was so stressed because the uncle had scolded me. I just took my car and drove all the way to Morib — to chill and have coconut juice! I needed that time out to discard the frustrations and find the balance again. I just kept telling myself that I was doing a great job and to just continue.”
When it comes to dealing with the elderly, patience is of the utmost importance, says Chan. “You need to really listen and understand where they’re coming from, for example, what are their challenges and frustrations. The process may take time hence patience is key. It’s the only way you’ll unlock the key to how you can help them.”
IN THE CARDS
Nursing was definitely not his first choice in terms of career, confides Chan, the elder of two siblings, when asked how he found himself in this line. He actually wanted to be a pilot. “But I had a problem with my eyesight so that plan didn’t work out,” recalls Chan, whose favourite subject at school was history. “My sister recommended that I be a physiotherapist. I ended up giving her excuses. Then she said I should try to be a pharmacist. But again I wasn’t keen. Then she suggested nursing, which she said was a mixture of doctor, pharmacist and physiotherapist. Like rojak. So I said ok, I’ll give it a try!”
Looking back, Chan, whose elderly father was in construction and mother, a journalist, confides that perhaps his path into nursing was already in the cards. “When I was 14, I saw how my grandmother suffered. She had lung cancer and passed away without any proper care. When I was debating whether to go into nursing or not, I suddenly thought of her. I wish I could have helped my grandmother when she needed it. I couldn’t because I didn’t have the skills and knowledge. As I grew older, I vowed that I’d do something for people in a similar predicament if I ever got the chance.”
His ultimate dream, confides Chan, who loves to travel in his spare time, is to open an old folks’ day care and rehab centre in the future. Concluding, Chan says: “I realise that Malaysia has a population that’s slowly ageing and a lot of elderly people are being neglected by their children who think nothing of leaving them in hospital to be cared for by other people. This saddens me. That’s why I want to be able to do more for this group in society.”