By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
“You have to be in Hong Kong in early November,” my brother said, when he called me from Texas in late September.
So I embarked on a 12-day trip to Hong Kong, one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life.
I should have said no. What my brother didn’t know was I needed to be in America, watching and covering the presidential election. Nor did I tell him that I wanted to postpone the trip until mid-December, as I was organizing a 380-guest dinner honoring former Ambassador to China Gary Locke, Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, and others. I didn’t share that I was mentally not ready to send my mother to a nursing home three months ahead of schedule. It took two years to convince myself that putting her in a home was the right thing to do. Yet, I didn’t give much thought about the process — how to tell her was another story.
Our original plan was to go to Hong Kong next February (at the end of Lunar New Year) to celebrate my mother’s birthday before she entered a nursing home.
I expected the trip to be joyless and depressing. Can someone help us to do the dirty job of explaining to mom that her kids were moving her to a nursing home? That would be a “death sentence” to her.
Years ago, I applied for a green card for her to stay in the United States.
Later, she forfeited her permanent residency status. Hong Kong’s lifestyle was more suitable for her, she said, due to her cultural and language barrier. Since my stepfather passed away in 2002, she has lived in Hong Kong with a foreign maid. It’s common in Hong Kong to hire a Filipino, Thai, or Indonesian maid.
The urgency for dispatching her to a nursing home was the progression of her Alzheimer’s disease. The other reason was the lack of professional care. In the past few years, we couldn’t carry a five-minute conversation on the phone. The last two years, she avoided a phone conversation because she lost her hearing aids (many times). It cost $800 in U.S. dollars for each ear. She would ask the same question 100 times and forget the answer, even if I told her 20 times.
It is unbearable to watch mom, once a beauty in her prime, diminished to an old lady with a hollow face, and sunken eyes full of fear and confusion. Her mind is lost, twisted, and never calm. Old friends praised my mother’s model figure in the past. It is heartbreaking to see her body shrink, and her feet limp. She can walk, but lacks the will to get out of the wheelchair. And her maid spoils her, pushing her in the wheelchair all the time. She used to be two inches taller than me, and now, it’s the opposite.
Mom has exhausted her options. Being careless with her finances, she is now penniless. I am ashamed to say that some relatives were stealing from her, while others distanced themselves from her, knowing that she doesn’t have any money. If you’re wondering why didn’t I advise her on her money, it was because she would have been suspicious of anyone who asked about her savings.
Instead of paying for her expensive apartment and maid, my brother and I decided to use the money for a nursing home.
The stigma for seniors to enter nursing homes is prevalent in Asia.
Relatives question your lack of traditional Asian values: What kind of kids are you to send aging parents to homes? Aren’t you supposed to take care of them? Don’t you know you are committing a cardinal sin — showing no filial piety?
At the risk of facing disapproval from our relatives, my brother and I did what was right for mom, and he had found a good nursing home in Hong Kong. He also enrolled mom in a reputable dementia center so she can get out of the nursing home once a week. The center provides a meal, engages seniors in many activities, including drawing, coloring, doing simple math, exercising, and dancing.
The transition process
We knew that mom would rather die than go to a home, so we mapped out our strategies to deal with her resistance.
On Nov. 9, my husband and I caught a red-eye flight to Hong Kong, landing in the city in the morning of Nov. 11.
When mom saw me, she was ecstatic — screaming, crying, and clapping like a happy little girl getting her first doll.
We kept our decision to ourselves. We never mentioned the term “nursing home” to her, and we requested that relatives do the same. We told mom that the landlord wanted the apartment back and she would move to a new place. That part was true. Her lease expired on Nov. 14.
It was unpleasant to sort out her stuff as piles of boxes and stacks of photo albums brought back my childhood traumas. We decided what to throw away, move, store, or donate. We told the maid to pack only her basic needs, mostly clothes.
The first and last day
Seven of us (my brother, my cousin, nephew, maid, aunt, my husband, and me) took her to a lavish dim sum lunch on Nov. 12. After lunch, we accompanied her to her new home.
There was no champagne to welcome my mom. But better yet — there was a mahjong table and games set up in a multi-purpose room. Mom hadn’t played for years due to her painful spine and disappearing mahjong friends. As she sat down to play like she used to, you wouldn’t believe she has Alzheimer’s.
Later, a young social worker interviewed her in her room. Mom loves to talk to handsome men and she was flirting with him. We had never seen her laughing and smiling so much.
Her room is small (six by eight feet) compared to those at Kin On and Keiro NW nursing homes. In addition to her bed and television on the wall, she has two pieces of furniture — an end table and a shelf. So my son moved her old lazy chair in her room the next day, something she is familiar and comfortable with.
Yes, her private room with a bathroom is costly. A doctor visits every Monday, and the nurse’s station is just outside mom’s room. Every day, social workers and nurses engage the elderly with activities and programs. That’s the reason we preferred her living at the nursing home, rather than living by herself and the Indonesian maid. The exchanges between mom and the maid were restricted to, “Eat, stomach full, sleep, or toilet.”
When I visited her last July, she complained that it was too quiet. The good thing was, she recognized her lonely environment. The bad thing was, she didn’t know what to do or say. “Where are the people? I want to be with people.” That’s when it dawned on me that she should join a nursing home.
The first few days, she nagged us that she wanted to go home.
“Tomorrow,” we would simply reply. The next day, she would forget about going home. In the past, she would lose her temper.
On the second day, she protested by refusing to eat, or spit out her food.
Suddenly, we played the tough-love parents. I forbade the maid from sneaking in egg tarts and barbeque buns for mom, and violating the nursing home’s rules.
The fact was, she would eat eventually when she got hungry. And she did.
The nursing home serves healthy, but not deliciously-cooked, food. The maid usually prepared tasty, unhealthy food like deep-fried shrimp and greasy soy sauce chicken. The home’s rule for treats is fruits only, no sugary and high-calorie items.
Most days, I visited her twice a day. I stayed in a nearby hotel, so I could walk to the home in the morning and late afternoon. I never stayed more than an hour (except the first two days), so I wouldn’t get depressed. It can drive one insane, to be in an environment constantly with the sick, old, and dying. One of my mom’s neighbors told us that he suffers from nine different illnesses. “I wish to die,” he said. So I excused my husband’s absences.
Mom would jump up with joy every time she saw me, as if she hadn’t seen me in a long time. She had forgotten that I was there in the morning or the day before. She would kiss and hug me. She liked kissing my hand and those of the people she likes.
Whenever she said she wanted to go home, I would reply, “This is home.”
I reinforced that many times. This went on for 10 days until the last day when I had to say goodbye. Every time I told her that I was leaving, she would get emotional and weep. “Mom, I leave tomorrow,” I told her.
“Where?” she asked.
“I am going back to America,” I responded. “I will come to see you soon.” This time, her sensible and calm response startled me.
“(Have) a safe and smooth ride,” she said. Her answer wasn’t the one I expected.
Ironically, I was the one crying. For a moment, the sound mind belonged to her, functioning well without being uncontrolled by the terrible disease. Mom’s ability to recognize reality is not something our family could take for granted. That was one of the good mother-daughter moments we shared together, as we hugged.
I had anticipated this journey to be tough, joyless, and tumultuous. To some extent, it was. It was also a relief. And kudos to all those who care for seniors — thank you for your service.
Meanwhile, we worked with the maid’s employment agency to end her contract. She had served mom for five years. It was not easy to tell her our decision. We gave her a retirement fund and a one-month grace period, so she could visit mom every day to help mom adjust. We also made sure she found a place to live, and paid for her room and board.
What took my mind off matters at times was working on the Northwest Asian Weekly’s Top Contributors dinner through emails. Isn’t it wonderful that I can work remotely, from 6,000 miles away? No one even knew that I was out of the country.
Since we lived in two different hotels, we ate out around the hotels’ districts — North Point and Tai Koo Shing. Every meal turned out to be a feast, it gave us something to look forward to during this stressful period.
My son, who works in Hong Kong, took us to some of the most interesting restaurants in town, including French and Nepalese restaurants. And my former high school friends treated us to all kinds of fine dining, including private clubs. How can I deny that Hong Kong is a food paradise!?
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.
Meg Southwood Lai says
You have voiced our generation’s (sixty-something’s) grief and guilt. Thank you Assunta.
Old age and its consequence are inevitable. One certain consequence is the guilt suffered by the offspring.
Our generation, I hope to be right, may be the first to be able to alleviate this guilt for our offspring.
I hope to do so by planning far ahead, setting up “The Plan” before I become unable to do so.
“The Plan” would be (forward) financed. Where possible, the chosen facilities would be reserved.
I have not started the process or analyse the feasibility. But I think I am capable, and so are most of my generation.
Time is unrelenting. I will enjoy the joy-filled leisure retirement years to the full, but will not forget The Plan.
Thank you again Assunta, for constantly being “The Conscience” of many things – in my world and, I am sure, in many others’ world.
George Hira says
I was sad, very sad. It is a blessing that you went to Hong Kong to see your precious Mom. May the good Lord Bless Her….
Erik Derr says
It’s always amazed and inspired me, over the many years since I first met you in 1996, by how brutally honest and open you have been in your weekly columns…now called your weekly blogs. Your candidness about your struggles with your mother’s care, compounded with the myriad other things in your life is so real and poignant today. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 11 years ago and for most of that time she’s been living with my wife and me…and the necessity to prioritize between everything else in our shared life and the needs of my mother is always on the forefront…and it’s hard. And nobody knows what you are feeling, what you are up against, really, except, perhaps, the other truly understanding members of your family. I just wanted to wish you the very best in everything, as we plow through another holiday season and head into a new year. I just wanted to tell you how much I admire you as a teller of meaningful stories and as a person who has continually tried to do right in the world.