In the face of mental health conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, caregivers can seem like background noise, the hum of an efficient machine working tirelessly to assist in the day-to-day activities of these patients.
A Research conducted recently revealed that 1 in 10 Singaporeans aged 60 and up are living with dementia, which is a condition that leads to the deterioration of memory and intellectual function, resulting in the need of around-the-clock care and support.
With these numbers, caregivers have an increasingly crucial role to play in ensuring the health of Singapore’s ageing population.
This support is usually provided by primary caregivers, including family caregivers, as well as caregiving services like Homage, an award-winning Singapore-based social enterprise that matches licensed caregivers with individuals who require care.
Nathierah Kunju, 51, is one such caregiver. As a professional freelance caregiver with Homage, most of the seniors she cares for are persons living with dementia.
Not so long ago, Nathierah was on the other side of the table. Her caregiving journey started at home when she began taking care of her parents as they grew older and became increasingly dependent on her for care and support.
When her mother was diagnosed with mild dementia, Nathierah assumed the role of a primary caregiver, bringing her mother to medical appointments and accompanying her to outings and activities.
However, it was not until 2018 that she began to consider a career in caregiving.
Her job as an executive recruiter has made her discover her gift for being able to connect well with the seniors she meets.
On top of that, her experience with caring for her parents led her to realise that not only was she able to deliver care, but she was also able to derive a sense of purpose from caregiving.
“Having a sense of purpose in any role I take is very important to me,” said Nathierah. “It’s the main reason why I decided to take a break from my career to learn more about senior care services.”
An Unlikely Friendship
Despite having cared for her mother before, Nathierah remembers feeling concerned when she first started caring for seniors.
One of her most memorable cases was her first case with Homage.
Assigned to care for a 96-year-old senior with dementia, she found herself worrying about whether the senior would be stressed out by her presence.
But she was soon surprised by how forthcoming the senior was.
“We connected almost immediately when I made a comment about the both of us having white hair,” Nathierah recalled. “She laughed and was immediately more comfortable with me.”
Throughout the care visit, they played games together and even chatted about the senior’s career as a teacher.
“I was glad to see her smile and laugh, and she even said ‘I love you’ to me,” said Nathierah. “The bond and friendship we shared is something I will never forget.”
Caring For The Caregivers
Despite the joys that caregiving has given Nathierah, she admits that being a professional caregiver comes with its own set of challenges. One of the biggest ones is delivering personalised care to each senior.
While dementia is most commonly associated with memory loss, it can be used to describe any condition where a variety of brain functions, including language and personality, deteriorate over time.
“Each individual is different,” Nathierah said. “It’s important to be observant of the senior’s behaviour so I can provide personalised care.”
At times, she also finds herself supporting entire families when their loved ones are diagnosed with dementia.
Caregivers work in tandem with family members to come up with the best care option for these seniors.
However, more often than not, the family lack the knowledge and understanding of dementia and other mental health conditions. As a result, they often find themselves at a loss when it comes to making an informed decision about the support option, as well as how to best personalise care to the needs of their loved one’s condition.
Here, Nathierah steps in as a pillar of support to families, equipping them with professional support and guidance.
For example, after each care visit, she shares her observations and tips with family members to ensure the continued wellbeing of her care recipients.
Even as she finds her work purposeful, Nathierah admits that caregiving is no easy task, and can be physically, emotionally and mentally laborious.
Feeling burnt out is a common issue that most caregivers experience, and she is no stranger to this.
She stresses the importance of knowing when to put some distance between herself and her profession.
“Whenever I feel that I need a break, I will step away from caregiving for a week or two to refresh myself and be ready to give care again. It is important to care for ourselves too.”
A Sense Of Satisfaction
Despite the challenges that come along with the profession, Nathierah stays firm in her belief that caregiving is able to offer a sense of purpose and fulfilment that no other career can.
Through frequently interacting and building bonds with her care recipients, she has found herself building up a sense of camaraderie and rapport with them, which has even developed to close friendships over time.
Nathierah has come a long way since her first house visit with the 96-year-old senior. Since then, she has added on to her repertoire of care delivery skills by attending various training courses offered by Homage.
Ultimately, as a professional caregiver, it is the little things that keep her motivated.
“Knowing that I have made a difference in the lives of the seniors under my care keeps me going,” she said. “I feel a sense of satisfaction when I see the smiles of a senior who has made progress under my care.”
World Alzheimer’s Day takes place every year on 21 September. Part of World Alzheimer’s Month, it is an international campaign that seeks to raise awareness and highlight issues faced by people with dementia.