HCA Nurse Manager Ng Wan Ru fondly recalls how her patient John Ashworth used to sing “Happy Birthday” to her, in rare lucid moments, before severe dementia rendered him almost completely nonverbal over the years.
It was how he showed his appreciation for Wan Ru, who has become a trusted family friend to him and Richard, his adopted son. The dementia had transformed John into a completely different person, prone to violent outbursts and agitation.
For Richard, it was a stark contrast to the patient, giving and kind-hearted man who adopted him 46 years ago. “I had a strong inferiority complex back then, people used to make fun of my short stature and I would get all upset,” he shares. “But John advised me, ‘Tell them – sticks and stones will break my bones, but words won’t hurt me’.”
The young boy could not speak a word of English then, and John would patiently teach him a new word each day, focusing on proper pronunciation. Recognising Richard’s artistic inclinations and passion for sculpturing, John would bring driftwood back from the beach for him to carve into works of art, and encourage him to submit his pieces for competitions.
Gift of Care
Under John’s encouragement and guidance, the timid boy blossomed into an eloquent, confident adult, who continues to pursue his artistic passions to this day. Apart from sculpturing, Richard is also an ambassador for the Community in Bloom programme, an initiative under NParks. Over the years, he has designed and created numerous large-scale community gardens.
Filled with love and gratitude for his father, Richard did not hesitate to take on the responsibility of caring for John when he was diagnosed with dementia 10 years ago. The physical and mental toll of caregiving have been immense, but Richard is thankful for the support from the HCA team.
“Wan Ru texts me every day to check in on John’s condition and how I am coping,” Richard says. “If she’s not able to get back to me promptly when I reach out to her, she’ll always let me know that she will call me back.”
Wan Ru’s gentle sincerity is evident in the way she greets John whenever she makes a visit. “She’ll always say, ‘Uncle John, my friend, how are you?’,” Richard shares. “My father is always very calm and relaxed around her.”
John is no longer able to express himself verbally, but he acknowledges Wan Ru’s presence by nodding in response. “I would talk to him as per usual, find out about his favourite music, and what he loves,” she says. “It is important to collaborate with the family to ensure that the patient is cared for in the way he or she prefers.”
Richard is equally full of praises for HCA Medical Social Worker Koh Yuqi. “Yuqi puts in all her heart and soul for our family,” he says. “There was once we found ourselves in a very difficult emergency situation, and she came down to our house immediately.”
Allies on the Journey
There have been dark periods of helplessness and frustration over the past decade, but Richard is determined to press on. “I should not do anything rash – I have these people behind me and I don’t want to disappoint them,” he says resolutely.
“HCA truly practises family-centered care and it is very nice that they also care for the caregiver. I hope more people will appreciate professionals like Wan Ru and Yuqi.”
It is the same spirit of love that Richard extends to other caregivers, like his elderly neighbour who is caring for her bedridden husband on her own. Noticing the state of disarray that their apartment was in, Richard decided to offer his help in house cleaning, and also assured the lady that she could call him anytime she needed assistance.
While the future is uncertain, one thing is for sure: Richard plans to continue his journey as a caregiver, even after his father passes on. “I wish to support other caregivers, to let them know that they are not alone,” he says.
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