“The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection.”
A family portrait in the living room.
It hasn’t always been like this.
Tan Lee Meng, my granny, walks across the living room with her walking stick — in contrast with her younger years.
For Lee Meng, the couch is her personal space where she spends most of her time. Pictured with her is her domestic helper.
Even though family members may be around her, Lee Meng frequently drifts into a world of her own.
When Lee Meng starts getting paranoid, she rapidly questions us on where she is and what has she done for the day so far.
Sometimes, Lee Meng refuses to eat at regular intervals which leads her to have gastrointestinal problems. The responsibility is upon my aunt, her primary caregiver, to coerce her to do so.
Her old address book that she regularly flips through as a reminder of all the people she has met.
She hobbles on a walking stick, even with my assistance, as she strides gently in her fluffy bedroom slippers across the marbled living room floor. She settles down on the couch and quickly complains about her backaches twenty minutes later. We respond with a routine nonchalance, her presence obliviously omnipresent, even as she sits in the centre around all of us. She then responds with a worried insistence that she has not taken her medicine, followed by a complaint that there is too much fruit on the plate for her, and then a demand to return back to her childhood home.
As a woman who has battled breast cancer, a stroke and now dementia, my granny remains resilient despite her frequent tantrums and outbursts.
Dementia is a degenerative brain disease that is increasingly prevalent especially amongst aging populations around the world. An estimated 40,000 people aged 65 and above are afflicted with dementia in Singapore, with a projected 30% increase by 2020.
This is my granny, Tan Lee Meng, who has lived eighty-four years on this planet. She has dementia, a degenerative brain disease that reduces her ability to think, reason and recall things.
My aunt, Jessica Lim, has shouldered the bulk of the responsibilities of taking care of my granny. She remains the greatest and strongest emotional pillar of support to my granny.
Lee Meng warms up when she sees me. Even though she asks me the same questions every week, I never fail to respond with a smile because her expression is always this endearing.
An old photo of my granny of when she was young.
My granny looks out on the various new developments around her neighbourhood that she has lived in for the past 25 years. My dad, Hang Nghee, points out the various landmarks.
These days, my conversations with her are flighty, mostly to reduce the unwanted demands for attention for my already exhausted aunt — her primary caregiver who stays with her. I deliberately ask her about her childhood days, digging deeper into a past history I have never experienced myself. I ask about the people whom I have never met (since my grandfather passed on before I was born), their interests, and attempt to weave them into an incoherent storyline that will forever be foreign to me. It is an opportunity for her to think and immerse herself in that world, one relatively distant from the clutches of this disease, perfect with the wholesome love and vivid memories that make sense to her.
Lee Meng’s animated self reveals itself when we talk about her younger days.
Those moments draw her into her old self — a woman speaking with an enthusiastic fervour, full of the selfless love that I was so familiar with when I was younger. This is my granny that I know and feel in my mind and heart.
Lee Meng’s wrinkled hands still bear her most precious rings that reflect her love for dressing up.
Lee Meng in a state of confusion.
Lee Meng reads the papers. She attempts to keep up with daily happenings, even though her capacity to remember them has worsened significantly — to the point she opens the papers just to check the date, nothing more.
Lee Meng’s attempts to keep a record of what she has done for the day are hampered by her reduced abilities to write and recall characters — a common problem for patients with dementia.
Hang Nghee and Lee Meng share a moment as they take in the view from her public flat.
People afflicted with dementia are often described as being put through a long death of their souls. They dwindle down to shells of what they were in the past, stripped of all the generously human expressions of reciprocal love and affection, reduced to a simple smile, nod or even a twitch of the finger that suddenly becomes far too precious a moment for their family members and loved ones. It brings to mind the shocking ease in which we take the love and expressions of love around us for granted, equating them as fundamentally human conditions through which we express our humanity. But it was only with dementia that I began to understand the sanctity of each act of love from my granny — seemingly dehumanised by this terrible disease.
Hang Nghee and Lee Meng blow the dust off their hands after touching the hand rails, in perfect unison.
My uncle Han Hong often gets tired taking care of Lee Meng as well.
Lee Meng is especially happy when she gets food that is bought by my aunt Jessica.
Lee Meng holds on to her favourite bolster-come-soft toy that my aunt Jessica bought during her travels.
Loving her in our imperfect, inadequate ways, but loving her no less.
Lee Meng is pictured with my aunt Jessica (top left) and our relatives from China, who are eager to shower her with love and attention, which she enjoys very much.
Mu Yao is currently a third-year undergraduate reading Communication Studies at Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information. You can view more of his works at fb.com/heymuyao or at his website at http://heymuyao.sg/