An ageing population means more families are faced with caring for elderly parents. But what happens when only one sibling is expected to take on most of the work?
Wen looking after aged parents, often one sibling is left to take on most of the burden, which can cause resentment. according to a 2013 study by the Duke-NUS medical School, the number of people above the age of 65 in Singapore is expected to increase to 610,000 by 2020, even as the number of family caregivers shrinks. So how do families work it out when one sibling has to care for her parents alone?
Sometimes it’s the sibling who wants to take on the role, but often, it’s the others saying they can’t because they have commitments. The caregiver can be left feeling stretched between her job, her own family, and financial demands. Yet, those left to be the main caregivers don’t usually speak up, and suffer in silence.
The Weekly spoke with five women who honestly aired their views and feelings on caring for their elderly parents, with our promise that their identities would be kept private.
Mum spent her life looking after us, so I wish my siblings would visit her more
Sally*, 45, fell into the role of being her mother’s primary caregiver after the latter suffered a minor stroke six years ago.
“When my mum had her stroke, it was scary. We didn’t know if she would recover, and were concerned with the cost of hiring a helper and entrusting my mum to a stranger. Mum was not for the idea at all, and was emotionally shaken by the whole episode as she was once a very independent and strong lady who didn’t like relying on anyone,” she says.
Sally has four other siblings, three of whom are married with kids. She and her sister, who are both single, live with their mother. Because Sally was in the midst of her studies and in a vocation that allowed her to work from home most days, unlike her siblings, she decided to take up the responsibility of caring for her mother. Today, she works part-time while helping to care for her mother at home, and brings her for quarterly doctor’s visits.
Sally struggles to be financially independent as a caregiver, and worries about her lack of savings. “Mum is 79, and has trouble walking and standing now. I found it hard to do full-time work because I was always worried about leaving her at home for long stretches of time. By the time mum was better enough for me to work full-time, I was already labelled as not being relevant to the job market, as I was competing with younger job seekers.
“I am thankful that Mum is a recipient of the Pioneer Generation package. That has helped take a load off her medical bills, but I still have many years of payments ahead. At 45, I have no savings or CPF to count on for my own retirement.”
Sally is grateful her siblings give her mum some allowance, though Sally still bears the cost for doctor’s bills, medication and household expenses.
“Due to my financial situation, Mum looks to my sisters for material needs, and they take Mum out shopping. At times, she makes it seem that this is more important than me being home with her. That hurts my pride sometimes, but I am thankful they can provide something I can’t.
“I’d like to think Mum and I are close and have a special relationship, but I am also the one who bears the most grouses. She turns to me first when she needs to be chauffeured somewhere, but looks to my siblings when she needs money.”
Sally says she would appreciate her siblings visiting their mum more often, and spending more time with her. “They sometimes visit her weekly, but other times, less often. Mum spent her life looking after us, so I wish they could do more in this regard. Mum always shows a positive side to my siblings but when they leave, I get to see the other side.
“Still, I have been able to stand my ground and push some duties to my siblings so I can go out to work more. I think this has been really helpful for me so far, and I am contented.”
I would have nothing to do with my sister if it weren’t for my mum
Karen*, 46, cares for her 81-year-old mother, who moved into Karen’s home after suffering a stroke in 2013. Karen also cares for her teenage niece.
"The stroke didn’t change Mum’s personality but she can no longer manage her finances and she’s wheelchair-bound. I lived close by but when she had the stroke, Mum moved into my home. I’m used to caring. Mum and I cared for my father for several years before he died. I was living at home then and in my 20s.
“My sister, Rachel, has drug problems and has never been there for Mum or her own daughter, which is why Mum and I have raised my niece. It never struck me to ask Rachel to help with Mum. Once I asked her to go to help feed Mum her dinner, but when I visited later that evening her dinner was cold. Rachel didn’t show up. It was the last time I asked her for help. She can’t be relied on – Mum, her daughter and I are not her priority.
“I would have nothing to do with my sister if it weren’t for Mum and my niece. I don’t like her as a human being and when Mum passes, I doubt I’ll have much to do with her. We’re practically strangers to each other.
“Mum would have done anything for me so I’m perfectly okay about doing anything for her, but I’m angry that Rachel doesn’t help. I’m not married and I don’t have children and I think Rachel thinks, ‘she doesn’t have responsibilities, so she can suck it up.’
“There is anger for what I am missing out on too, because I have no freedom. I’ve been dating someone for three years and we catch up a couple of times a week. Sometimes I feel guilty about that, but I have to look after myself. I don’t want to come out of this experience feeling bitter.”
My brother said it has to be you
Emily*, 53, cares for her father who has been in a nursing home for two years. Emily also cared for her mother at home before she died. Her older brother has provided little “I or no support.
"I quit work in 2011 to look after Mum and Dad. I’d drop my daughter at school and then go to my parents’ house until I collected my daughter at 3.30 pm. My brother wasn’t involved from the start. Mum and Dad would get angry because four or five days would pass without him calling them. He simply said to me, ‘I don’t do well looking after old people. It has to be you.’ He didn’t have time, he had to work, he said. So I had no choice. Mum passed away in 2014 and Dad went into a nursing home.
“There’s never been any recognition from my brother that I gave up work for Mum and Dad. He and I had a distant relationship before, but we were always civil. Now it is more difficult. He was concerned about our parents’ financial affairs – he was worried that I might get more of their money than him. There was jealousy because I knew how much money they had, but I needed to know because I did their banking and paid their bills.
“I visit Dad for two to three hours every day. I don’t know how often my brother visits. Sometimes I think he’s going in to visit so I don’t see Dad, and then I find out he didn’t go and I feel like a terrible daughter.
“My brother is married, works, and has a normal life. He’s been able to go on holidays with his family and enjoy himself, because he knows I’ve been there to look after Mum and Dad. I haven’t had a holiday since my husband left 14 years ago because I have a daughter to care for, too, and she has a disability.
“My friends are a great help. When I have a carer for my daughter we get together and laugh and joke and don’t talk about what goes on at home – it’s my release. The responsibilities need to be shared – one person can’t do it all the time. But my brother just hasn’t been there to help me.”
My sister thinks I got the ‘sugar’ in our childhood, so now I must pay
Rina*, in her 50s, flies every six to eight weeks to visit her parents who live abroad.
“I wish my parents lived with me; I did look into bringing them here, but they are not Singapore citizens and the medical bills would kill us,” she says. “My father had open heart surgery a few years ago, and needs to see the doctor every month to treat his eyesight. And my mother is almost blind, is going deaf and is vulnerable to falls. She literally cannot be left alone.
“All my annual leave goes to visits to them, and when my husband and I take short trips of our own, I must take no-pay leave.”
Rina cooks and cleans for her parents during her visits, takes them to doctors’ appointments. “Most of all, I try to be cheerful and happy all the time around them. If I have problems, I don’t tell them,” she says. Although Rina has a younger sister, who is married without children, she cannot expect any help from her to care for their parents. “My sister lives further away from our parents than me, and only visits them twice a year.”
“To be frank, I think she sees caring for our parents as my role: Repayment for what she suffered as a child. My mother likes me, but she and my sister fought when they were younger. Because I got the ‘sugar’ in my childhood, now I must pay.
“She and her husband have a good income, a big house and no kids. Last year they took at least six trips, from one side of the world to the other. Yet when I asked her to visit my parents more often she said she didn’t have time, and that the plane trips were too expensive for them.”
Rina’s husband is in a similar position, as the couple lives with his 82-year-old mother. “My husband cares for his mother almost single-handedly, though he has a brother who lives elsewhere and only visits once or twice a year. The reality is, he chooses to live away – she’s my husband’s problem.”
Rina knows her parents love and appreciate her, and are grateful. “Actually, I don’t begrudge caring for them, and we are very close. But I worry about their suffering so much that sometimes I wish some catastrophe would happen, so they both pass on together, painlessly. I hate myself for even thinking this. It might help to have someone strong to lean on… it would make the struggle less solitary.
“My husband loves his mother. And I love my parents. What can we do? Turn them out onto the street? If our siblings do not want to help, we have no choice but to carry on.”
My siblings always had reasons for not being available
Miriam*, 49, moved home to live with her parents when her father became ill. He died in December and Miriam has remained in her parents’ home to look after her mother. She is the oldest of five siblings.
“My Dad was diagnosed with heart problems three years ago and he gradually deteriorated. He’d had diabetes for years too, and had been a heavy smoker. His body just began breaking down. He’d always been the patriarch and he was determined to remain at home rather than go into a nursing home. But he was in and out of hospital and I was always the one Mum called – not because I’m the oldest or the favourite, but because my siblings always had ‘reasons’ for not being available.
“One sibling lives overseas, so she couldn’t help. But my other sister and two brothers have older children and partners who are more than capable of doing their share.
“What hurts the most is that Dad didn’t recognise how much I did for him. I moved out of my home to be there for him – dealing with his anger and frustration as he became less mobile, and less able to do things around the house. But whenever my siblings visited him for an hour, he acted as though they’d given him the world.
“My brothers dealt with Dad’s palliative care team without me. In their eyes, I had no place discussing that. I was with Dad at night when he’d pray for an end to his suffering, but my brothers dismissed my input and prolonged his life rather than letting him go quickly and peacefully.
“Mum is frail and can’t be left alone, and my siblings expect me to care for her. When I said it was someone else’s turn, they said I was ‘selfish and disrespectful’ to Mum. So I’ve stayed – simply because I love my parents. But I have little to do with my siblings. If they visit, I leave.
“I have a boyfriend, and his home is my escape and our normality. Our relationship went through a difficult patch. Caring for my Dad was overwhelming and there wasn’t much time or emotional energy left. But my siblings have no respect for our relationship – we’re not married, so it doesn’t count.
Sharing the physical and emotional care of Mum and Dad would have made my life so much easier, but my siblings saw my life and commitments as unimportant and dispensable. It upsets me, and I can’t forgive them for that.”
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
HELP FOR CAREGIVERS
Caregiving responsibilities usually fall on the women in the family, and can cause feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, loneliness and fatigue, says psychologist Daniel Koh from Insights Mind Centre.
So what do you do if you’re the one who’s left with caring for your parents? “Engage help,” says Daniel. “If it can help you be more effective and recharge, it is valuable to you and your loved ones,” he says.
“Female caregivers often experience specific struggles like feelings of embarrassment when showering their fathers, carrying wheelchair-bound parents, and not having enough emotional support or understanding from family members,” adds Karen Bek, deputy director for home-care at NTUC Health.
Here are some ways to help relieve the pressure if you’re caring for your parents alone.
CREATE POCKETS OF TIME FOR REST
You are entitled to rest, so do not feel guilty about it. Have time to yourself while your parent naps, and pick up simple hobbies to de-stress.
VOICE YOUR FRUSTRATIONS
If you keep quiet, others may think you’re doing ok, says Daniel. Instead of complaining, sit together and ask to discuss solutions. You can also vent frustrations by writing down your feelings, and finding support groups for information.
BUILD A STRONG BOND WITH YOUR PARENTS
Be there for them and focus on the positive, even if they may not always show gratitude.
SIGN UP FOR RESPITE CARE SERVICES
NCSS has a list of organisations that specialise in the support of certain conditions like diabetes, and Family Service Centres can link you to resources for volunteer support. Try NTUC Health Care@home for home-based respite care services, and NTUC Silver Circle senior day centres, says Karen.