Text and photo by Liao Ming-yu
Translated by Wu Hsiao-ting
As a professional care provider, she has cared for many older people afflicted with dementia. But caring for her own mother with Alzheimer’s has still proved a difficult challenge.
Zheng Qiu-yun (鄭秋雲), 62, is a professional home care worker. She is also single. That’s why she thought it a matter of course for her to become her parents’ caregiver when they fell ill.
A bed with handrails is the first thing Zheng sees as she walks through the door to her home. Next to the bed is a wheelchair. Before she goes into her room to change out of her volunteer uniform, she walks over to the bed to check on her mother.
Zheng’s younger sister has recently moved back with her and their mother. With her around to help tend to their mother’s needs, Zheng finally has more time for herself. She uses that precious time off to volunteer. For her, volunteering is the best way to recharge her batteries and regulate her emotions.
Zheng used to run a boutique in Taichung, central Taiwan, but she lost all her store’s goods to a break-in burglary more than 20 years ago, and ran up a huge debt as a result. It was only with the help of Buddhism, with which she came into touch later, that she came to realize life’s impermanent nature. Since everything we own is ephemeral, it’s best not to become attached to anything. That way of thinking eventually helped her to come to terms with her loss. After paying off her debt, she changed careers and became a licensed home care provider. Besides working as a caregiver, she also began serving actively as a Tzu Chi hospital volunteer. Being warm-hearted, loving, and patient, she gained the trust of many older people and medical professionals.
Four years ago, her then 89-year-old father fell down and required care. Zheng moved back to her childhood home in Yilan, northeastern Taiwan, to help take care of him. He passed away three years later. But then her mother’s health rapidly declined. She was diagnosed first with Parkinson’s, then dementia. She became unruly. “She began to get easily depressed, agitated, and restless,” Zheng said. “She refused to take medicine. She wore a permanent frown and was quick to lash out. When I drove her anywhere, she’d let loose with a torrent of abuse whenever we stopped at a traffic light. Just me leaving the car for five minutes to buy stuff could set her off screaming and crying.”
Having cared for many older people suffering from dementia, Zheng knew that her mother was displaying dementia symptoms and that things would only get worse. She tried her best to build a mental fortress so that she would have the fortitude to take whatever came her way.
Zheng has now cared for her mother for about a year. Even though she is mentally prepared, there have been times when she felt she could not cope. For example, “My mom would ask to go to the bathroom every five or ten minutes at night. I couldn’t get any sleep.” There is only so much one can take. When Zheng feels she is losing it, she tells herself: “She’s my mom. She’s sick. She isn’t doing this on purpose.”
A Tzu Chi volunteer has to abide by ten precepts. One of them is “Respect your parents and be moderate in speech and attitude.” She uses this as a reminder to be patient towards her mother. At night, when she lies down in a bed next to her mother’s bed to go to sleep, she chants the Buddha’s name to calm her mind. She can’t predict how much longer her mom will need her care. She prays for more patience and strength, and thinks back on the hard work her mother put into raising her. If for nothing else, she wants to do a good job taking care of her to repay her love.
Zheng has worked as a care provider at a seniors’ daycare center in Su’ao, Yilan, since her father passed away. She takes her mother with her to the center, where she receives proper care while she works. When she has volunteer work to do and there is no one to look after her mom for her, she takes her volunteering too. For example, at the end of last year, Zheng and her fellow volunteers pitched in to help lay paving bricks for a Tzu Chi recycling station in Luodong, Yilan. While she worked hard in the sun moving bricks, her mother sat in a wheelchair under a tree nearby watching the work. That was one of the most peaceful moments she has enjoyed with her mom.
Though Zheng is a professional caregiver, caring for older people at work is a different matter from caring for her own mom. She can call it a day at work, but there is no such thing as “calling it a day” when it comes to caring for her mom. Zheng knows that she isn’t getting any younger and that her strength or stamina is sure to decline down the road. She has told her younger siblings that they all have a responsibility to help care for their mother and that if one day none of them is able to care for her, they will have to make other arrangements for their mother to age in peace. Fortunately, though her siblings all have their own families to take care of, they do their best to help out. Whenever she asks for help, they never turn a deaf ear.
On this day, Zheng looked at the time and saw it was time to go volunteer. She quickly changed into her volunteer uniform. “We are delivering a second-hand bed to the home of an older person who lives alone,” she explained. Both Zheng and her younger sister were sporting large dark circles under their eyes. Their mother must have been refusing to sleep at night again.
For Zheng, a change of work is as good as a rest. She headed out for her volunteer assignment, seizing another opportunity to recharge her batteries.