If you care, take a break
Guilt fills James Teo at times, when he looks in the eyes of his octogenarian father. The latter, largely wheelchair-bound and reticent, has dementia.
Teo says: “I see a deep sorrow in him that I feel helpless about. There is no way for me to reach out to him.”
That he visits his father, who lives with a domestic helper, once a week and not more frequently, also eats away at him. “I feel like I’m not a good son, yet I don’t have the capacity to do more,” says the 46-year-old, who also looks after his father’s various medical needs and appointments.
But the founder of the graphic and communications design studio ampulets is learning to give himself a break – from the mental, physical and emotional strain of being a caregiver.
The turning point for him came recently after he worked on the art project, Personally Speaking: The Art of Caregiving. Since then, his message to caregivers, including himself, has been: you can take a break.
The art project, commissioned by Lien Foundation, in partnership with Ngee Ann Polytechnic, and produced by the photography and film centre Objectifs, features works by eight Singapore-based artists on the joys and challenges of caregiving. Its aim: to help the public reflect on their own caregiving journey, as well as society’s role in supporting caregivers.
Teo says: “Many people think helpers, caregivers, are invincible, and they expect them to do everything. But even robots break down.”
He acknowledges that caregivers can also be hard on themselves and forget to pause, catch their breath and rest. He knows this personally, as well as from observing caregivers around him for more than a decade.
When his mother suffered a stroke more than a decade ago, his father, who nursed her, felt a lot of guilt as a caregiver, says Teo. “They were married for more than 50 years and they were very close. My father felt he should have taken better care of her.”
When it was time for his father to receive care, Teo’s older sister and the domestic helpers the family hired over the years were similarly saddled with caregiver guilt and anxiety. “My sister tries to not travel overseas. She says, ‘If I go, who will visit Father?’”
The domestic helpers were also reluctant to leave his father’s bedside whenever the latter was hospitalised. “I always tell them to go out, get a breath of fresh air, call a friend, but they feel bad about leaving him alone.”
Teo’s focus for the project is therefore to tell caregivers, “You can take a break”. The work, titled the same, comprises an animated short film and a handy booklet.
The film and booklet both tell the same story – Teo’s experience and observations as a caregiver, which appear in writing, and the story of a caregiver robot in a parallel universe, told in drawings. The meeting of fact and fiction creates an inviting space for viewers to reflect on their role as caregivers, and perhaps be moved to be gentle with themselves.
Copies of the booklet are available for free at the exhibition, which will travel from Oasis Terraces, a neighbourhood centre in Punggol, to the Jurong Regional Library, and finally Objectifs in Middle Road. Visitors are encouraged to take the booklets and gift them to caregivers in need of a comforting word.
For Teo, making the book and film has helped him to embrace the challenges of being a caregiver. He says: “In life, there will be many obstacles, but these challenges will one day pass, and life goes on. So, I tell myself to not dwell on the sorrow or difficulties too much.”