What does it feel like to grow old?
A group of doctors from Universiti Malaya will soon run an intervention programme to give caregivers a peek into the minds and bodies of the elderly people under their watch.
“We’d give them simple exercises to do – eat a single raisin without using their teeth, perform simple chores while using glasses or goggles that limit their vision. Or picking something up wearing thick gloves. It’s hard but it will help them appreciate what ageing is and how difficult it is for an older person,” explains Dr Farizah Mohd Hairi. She is one of the researchers of the Prevent Elder Abuse and Neglect Initiative (Peace) initiated by the Department of Social and Preventative Medicine under the university’s medical faculty.
Training is expected to begin soon, beginning with a group of caregivers from nursing homes in Negri Sembilan.
One of the contributing factors to elder abuse cases, says consultant geriatrician Dr Rajbans Singh, is a lack of awareness, knowledge and understanding about elderly care and support.
“In my 20 years as a geriatrician, I have come accross many cases. A lot of the times, the abuse occurs not because the carers or family want to intentionally hurt or harm the older person but because they do not know how to care for the elderly.
“It’s different with children, where you are in charge and you can set the rules. With the elderly, they can make up their own minds. We have to remember that these older people were once ‘somebodies’ – they were the head of households, they were professionals or had jobs and were depended on for many things. But, the roles have now changed and that’s not an easy thing to deal with,” explains Dr Rajbans.
Things get more challenging if the older person is no longer alert because of Alzheimer’s or dementia, diseases that correspond largely to ageing.
“Emotional and psychological abuse is very common especially if the patient (older person) has dementia. Many carers really don’t understand the nature of the disease and don’t know how to deal with someone with dementia,” says Dr Rajbans.
He shares his childhood experience of dealing with the elderly.
“My grandfather had dementia. At the time, I was quite young… I wasn’t a doctor yet. He would just walk out and talk about things that didn’t make sense to us. Sometimes, he would go to the road outside our house and take a leak. I remember my cousins would get very upset with him. They took his actions personally, as if the old man was out to make things difficult for them on purpose.
“What we didn’t understand at the time was that he was suffering from dementia. It was only years later when I became a doctor did I understand his behaviour at the time,” he shares.
However, as important as it is for caregivers to empathise, it is also crucial for them to have a support system to lean on.
“Most families think about the welfare of the older person so much, they forget about the carer. In many families, the responsibility of caring for the older person falls on the shoulders of one child or one sibling.
“The others may contribute financially or occassionally, but the responsibility is largely on one person. It can take a heavy toll, especially if the elderly person is not well.
“The carer’s life now is centered around this older person. After some time, with no support or help, he or she may find it hard to cope and that is when the abuse starts – by taking out the stress on the elderly person,” says Dr Rajbans.
When it comes to caring for the elderly, families need to come together and support each other.
“If it gets too stressful, caregivers can hire private nursing help for a few hours every week just to allow them some time to do their own thing.
“Or, find suitable daycare facilities that are comfortable for the elder persons and allow them to meet and talk to their peers, while giving caregivers some time for themselves,” suggests Dr Rajbans.