The Struggles and Challenges of Caregiving

Who is a caregiver?

A caregiver is someone who takes on the responsibility of looking after another with health conditions – mental or physical. Caregivers can be close family members, extended family members, friends, or hired help. 

There are about 210,000 caregivers in Singapore and 70% of them are 40 years old and above. Statistics taken from Caregiver’s Alliance Annual report 2020 on caregivers for those with mental health issues alone indicated that out of 15,695 caregivers, 71%, or 11,164 persons are females while 29%, or 4,531 persons, are males. Many women are relegated to the dual role of caregiving and working or are even forced to give up their careers and make sacrifices throughout their life for caregiving. 32% of caregivers belong to the age group of 51-60 years old, 23% in the 41-50 age group, and 18% in the range 31-40 years old.

Why do caregivers need help?

Caregiving can be very challenging, especially when caregivers are not equipped with relevant skill sets and do not have a proper support network.

I searched within my memory of my life experiences on caregiving and found the memories buried deep within me to be rather traumatic. I recalled that when I was between 8 to 11 years old, I had to be a caregiver to my mother. The only other support was from my 76-year-old paternal grandfather, as my father was a sailor and was often away for months at any one time. The reason I had to care for my mother was because she was struck with a recurrence of cancer for about three years. Thankfully, the neighbours were like a kampong network for me. When she became unwell, some neighbours helped to send her to the hospital even in the middle of the night.

Eventually, my mother passed away and I had to become a caregiver to a sister who was seven years old and my youngest brother who was only two years old. It grew even more stressful when I was a teenager, as I had to take care of my grandfather who was bedridden at home. We were unable to send him to the nursing home as we could not afford it financially. So my sister, who was schooling, and I took care of him and my youngest brother, with some support from my maternal grandmother for about two years. We were young and we did not know much about caregiving. All we had was a grateful heart, as well as a deep conviction that it was our duty to return the love he gave us through his care for us when our mother passed away. He helped us carry on. 

Nevertheless, we were tested to the extreme since we were so young, with no knowledge or skills, and we felt exhausted, overwhelmed, resentful at times and often irritable as we grappled with other tasks: our own studies, managing the home and caring for our younger brother. But we managed to live through that difficult period with support, once again, from our neighbours and a deep faith in a loving God. My sister and I attended a Catholic school although we came from a Taoist family. As such, we received catechism lessons about God’s promise that he would not desert us when we pray fervently to him. This made us hopeful that we would obtain the strength to carry on. 

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your understanding, in all your ways Submit to Him, and he will make your paths straight. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

For nothing is impossible with God. (Luke 1:37)

But our story did not end there. My father suffered from dementia when he was in his late seventies. Six years later, his condition deteriorated so much that he could no longer control his bodily functions and suffered severe memory loss. From getting lost all the time to being unable to recognise anyone of us, we felt our hearts torn apart whenever he asked who we were during our visits. Eventually, he became very aggressive and refused to take his meals to the point of losing a lot of weight, and so, the difficult question of whether he needed care in a nursing home had to be considered. I prayed so hard, asking God to help us make a wise decision.

It is never easy to decide whether we should have our loved ones cared for by strangers in a nursing home. Yet, we must discern what is the best place for the care of the person if we are unable to continue the caregiving. There is no magic formula, and we must pray for wisdom and trust in the Lord. In the end, we applied to a nursing home. But before a vacant slot became available, he died peacefully in his sleep.

Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. (Romans 12:12)

I recall the Holy Father saying that as a Catholic community, we need to hold ourselves in the discreet attitude of the angel who offers support, simple and delicate, to the brother or sister who no longer has the strength to live.

From my work in the social service community, I learned that a kind gesture, an offer to support in the ways we can, and a listening ear can make a lot of difference for caregivers. Caregivers who are isolated and without support may become depressed and unable to cope with the mental and physical stress imposed on them. There are cases of suicide deaths when these caregivers can no longer cope with the burden of long-term caregiving at the expense of their own mental and physical health. For example, in 2018, a father of three killed his autistic daughter before jumping to his death. He had a history of depression.

As such, as caregivers, we must understand the need to reach out for help and know our limits. We must practice self-care so we can continue to give our love during caregiving. There are many different support groups for caregivers with different needs, as well as hotlines that caregivers can call to seek for support. We need not be alone in our struggles. As Catholics, we can also seek help from our parish community or contact Caritas Singapore during office hours at 8375-3125.

Let us remember the words of Jesus.

Ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. (Matthew 7:7)

Christine Wong is the Executive Director of Caritas Singapore. She has a vast experience in the mental health sector. As she has received many blessings from the Lord, she strongly believes in the words of Jesus found in Luke 6:38, which is “Give, and it will be given to you”. In her free time, she enjoys playing with her adopted rabbits.