She put her life on hold to care for mum. Despite loneliness and depression, she isn't giving up
Nadia Daeng has suffered from depression and caregiver burnout. But she always had a marketing career she enjoyed — until her mother had a stroke. The story of her personal battles is now told in the series Altered Lives.
SINGAPORE: Nadia Daeng’s life changed dramatically when her mother had a stroke.
It was 2019, and the then 36-year-old was working for a global public relations and sports marketing agency in Singapore. She was good at her job and enjoyed travelling the world, attending events and meeting VIPs.
She was renting a flat in the central business district with her eldest brother, Andy, and was in a committed relationship with her partner, Wayne Ree.
But her mother’s health was deteriorating. The septuagenarian had a mild heart attack in September, which made Nadia “start to panic” and to pull back on projects at work.
Then in October, the stroke happened, affecting her mother’s memory, mobility and speech. It was a trigger for her to stop working and become her mother’s full-time carer.
Today, Nadia has battled loneliness and caregiver burnout. Her life is on hold, and she still has no idea where it is heading.
But she has made the best of things as seen in Altered Lives, a four-part series on the disconnect some people suffer and how circumstances change lives.
Despite having to sacrifice her career, it did not take much for Nadia, the youngest of four children, to make the decision. “I always get the question, why don’t you just get a maid?” she said.
“I don’t see how I’m expected to just leave my mother in the hands of someone she doesn’t know, in such a private and almost … invasive manner on a daily basis.”
Besides, she added, her mother looked after her and her siblings in the same dutiful way when they were children.
Her brothers help with expenses and do what they can, while elder sister Lynda has special needs. She and Andy also gave up their flat and moved into their mother’s one-room rental unit.
During her mother’s initial months of recovery in hospital, Nadia was there almost every night, observing how the nurses took care of her mother and learning from them. “They essentially gave me four months of intensive caregiver training,” she said.
Her daily duties include helping her mother clean herself, giving medication and even checking her mother’s stool for blood. “For some reason, I’m not disgusted by it,” she said.
“I think (it’s) because I look at it from a project management perspective, which is what I used to do.”
She struggles, however, with loneliness, loss of self-identity and having to navigate depression. The only time she has for herself is during her mother’s twice-weekly physiotherapy sessions at a senior care centre.
“I’m grieving the non-existence of my personal identity, because right now I feel like I’m living in the service of others,” she said.
For two years, she did not go out at night and saw Wayne only twice or thrice a week for lunch. But those precious lunches sometimes had to play second fiddle too.
In one instance, the couple had an anniversary lunch that had to be cancelled at the last minute as her mother’s senior care centre had a patient who tested positive for COVID-19.
“Naturally, I was disappointed,” said Nadia. “But I think this is my life now.”
With all the curveballs now, her motto is, take things one day at a time. But this also means she is unable to make plans for her future, such as her wedding.
After Wayne proposed at the end of 2019, she entertained hopes of a wedding reception at The Fullerton Hotel, where Andy works. Saved on her phone are photos of what she imagines her dress will look like.
But with a lot on her plate, she has been walking around with an engagement ring without any idea when she can tie the knot.
“The thing about caring for an elderly loved one is you wonder how long you have them,” she said.
“I’m doing everything I can to keep my mum happy and comfortable for as long as I have her. But I don’t know how long we have her.”
She and Andy have also decided to pool their Central Provident Fund savings to apply for a flat. She wants her family to have a home, one where her mother has access to all her children easily.
This means building a nest egg and planning for a marital home must also be postponed indefinitely. “That breaks my heart,” she said. “(But) it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make because that (family home) takes precedence.”
She hopes to get a flat in the north-east part of Singapore, which would be closer to her other brother, who is married with children. But so far, they have been unsuccessful.
Even before her mother’s stroke, however, Nadia was no stranger to the risks of caregiver burnout. After her father died in 2004, she became a secondary carer for Lynda, accompanying her sister to appointments at the doctor’s and therapy sessions.
Lynda was first admitted to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) in 1995 and was formally diagnosed with borderline personality disorder a decade later. She was recently re-diagnosed with intellectual disability.
She struggles to manage her emotions, said Nadia, and when she does not get what she wants, she may resort to violence.
“You try your hardest to be as kind and compassionate as possible but still have to face abuse from the person you’re providing care for,” remarked Nadia. Yet, she felt as if she was not doing enough.
She felt guilty about having opportunities in her career and personal life, compared with her sister. She felt “awful” about not providing more for her family, despite contributing half her salary towards her family’s expenses when she was working full-time.
“I wanted so badly to be able to provide them with a comfortable life because (my mother and sister) had already had to suffer so much,” she said.
Owing to caregiver burnout, she was first diagnosed with depression in 2016 and contemplated suicide.
Her best friend, Rubyni Karun, was not only worried but “absolutely scared”. “You’d really broken down in front of me,” she recounted to Nadia. “That made me realise how serious it was … I was panicking inside.”
The incident gave Rubyni a “huge push” to help her friend. Among other things, she introduced her to reiki, a form of alternative therapy that Nadia has continued with until now.
Nadia also sought professional help from the IMH, which was where she stumbled across the Caregivers Alliance Limited, a non-profit organisation that provides support for carers of those with mental health conditions.
She started attending a support group there and volunteering for the organisation in her free time. “It was such a game-changer for me,” she said.
I didn’t realise there was this community of people out there who were going through the same thing as my family … so I wanted to give back.”
Last year, she and Wayne decided to attend couples therapy as well, which she said has helped them “tremendously”. Their relationship had been under a lot of strain, she acknowledged, as she tended to take her stress out on him.
Sometimes she worries about not being “entirely present” for him. “Much as I don’t want to lose him, I also don’t want to hold him back from any other version of happiness he might be able to have,” she said.
But he has remained supportive throughout.
“We’re not going to kill ourselves trying to plan the wedding if we don’t have the right mental headspace for it,” he said. “The engagement ring is a promise that we’ll get married, and we’ll just see when we can.”
He thinks she has done very well, considering. “I’m just happy to see her … after everything, still smiling,” he added.
WATCH: I gave up my PR career to care for Mum — despite battling depression and burnout (11.58)
Since the final episode of the series in December, Nadia’s mother’s dementia has worsened, and she has been in and out of hospital.
This is why Nadia and her brothers decided to get Lynda discharged from the IMH to live with their mother instead, despite the family not having secured a flat of their own.
“What’s more important to us is that my sister spends time with my mum while she can,” Nadia said to CNA Insider recently.
It turned out to be a blessing: Lynda can help with some of the caregiving duties, like changing her mother’s diapers, giving her mother a bath and even giving her medication.
With the extra help, Nadia can have some evenings off to spend with Wayne or have a social catch-up. Being able to help their mother has also given Lynda a sense of purpose, Nadia said.
Another silver lining: The relationships between the Daeng siblings have improved significantly over the past few years. Prior to her mother’s stroke, they barely spent time together, according to Nadia.
“We’d grown apart and led our own lives. But suddenly, I realised my brothers have a sense of humour that’s quite cute … and stuff like that,” said Nadia, who was encouraged and grateful that her family “came together” for their mother.
Nadia has also come to be in a “much better place” following the documentary. “Surprisingly, being a part of the documentary in itself and talking about it (her caregiving journey) to such an extent was healing,” she said.
She rates her current mental state an eight out of 10, compared with four when filming started.
And she is heartened by the responses from viewers as friends, family and even strangers sent her messages of encouragement. Some of them shared their own caregiving experiences.
She has also received several anonymous donations, which have been channelled to her mother’s and sister’s expenses as well as home essentials like diapers and groceries.
“Realising that you’re not alone makes a huge difference,” she said. “I’m not saying it takes your problems away immediately. But knowing that there are people who stand in solidarity with you is very, very powerful.”
Her message to other carers is that they “don’t have to do it by themselves”, because “there’s a community willing to … provide the support you need”.
She has not thought much about how her life will change when her mother is gone, but this much she knows: She hopes to continue caring for her sister and, ultimately, to work again but this time in mental health or the broader healthcare sector.
“I don’t think enough organisations realise that if you have a team that’s happy and healthy, you get more productivity,” she said.
“I want to be able to use my skill set for raising awareness and normalising that type of mindset or environment going forward.”
Watch the series Altered Lives here.
Know a carer who needs emotional or psychological support? Help is available:
Caregivers Alliance Limited: 6460 4400
Agency for Integrated Care: 1800 650 6060