Caring for ailing parents stresses families to the limit

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 November, 2011, 12:00am

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Dementia, stroke, osteoporosis and other ailments among Hong Kong's growing ranks of elderly people have put a severe strain on family caregivers and household finances.

May Cheung Yuet-kam, a housewife, knows how exhausting this can be. She looks after her mother, Ng Choi-yiu, who developed dementia 10 years ago.

'We didn't know what dementia was then. She refused to eat but complained about being hungry all day. We thought she had gone crazy,' Cheung says.

'She was a strong woman, who ran a vegetable business and brought up eight children. She finds it hard to accept she has dementia and loses her temper easily.'

Although Ng lives in Wan Chai with her son and his wife, it's Cheung who has assumed the role of primary caregiver. 'They have to work all day, so the responsibility for taking care of her falls on me.'

And until earlier this year, when her mother could no longer walk, Cheung had been commuting from her home in Ap Lei Chau to bring her mother to the St James Settlement's care centre in Wan Chai every other day.

'At the centre, I learned a lot of exercises for stimulating dementia patients. I play chess and read news reports to her every day. After she lost the ability to walk, the eight siblings jointly hired a domestic helper to look after her. But Mother doesn't accept the helper and scolds her all day.'

About 9.3 per cent of people aged 70 or older in Hong Kong suffer from dementia, and the Census and Statistics Department expects the number of sufferers to reach 77,000 by 2019.

A survey last year by Chinese University's Centre for Gerontology and Geriatrics revealed the tremendous stress that their caregivers are under. More than 60 per cent of the 122 family caregivers polled said the strain led them to retaliate against dementia patients by yelling insults and humiliating them. Nearly 20 per cent admitted they had pushed, shoved, bit and hit them.

Winnie Lui Kwok-ying, professional service manager in charge of St James Settlement's dementia care programme, says support groups where caregivers share their experiences and feelings could relieve family members' stress.

'Even close relatives of caregivers cannot understand the hardship and pain of seeing someone you love wilt away like that.' Lui says. 'The empathy from support groups can better sustain them. Carers also learn special stimulation exercises to help slow down the cognitive decline of patients.'

St James provides training to family members and domestic helpers to better cope with the physical tasks and stress of caring for dementia patients.

'The tone of the speech you use to address patients and how you physically interact with them affects their response,' Lui says.