Caring for seniors can be taxing, but there are joys to be had amid the challenges.

Christina Quah, 47, has been working as a professional caregiver for seniors since 2018. The full-time housewife said that as her two boys, aged 11 and 12, have grown more independent, she was looking for a job that gave her flexible working hours.

That was when she found an ad looking for care professionals.

She tells The Pride: “At the start, I just wanted to try it out, take one or two care visits. After my first few visits, I personally felt that there was a sense of fulfilment seeing the seniors I cared for being happy and comfortable. During each visit, they welcomed me with open arms and were reluctant to see me leave when the care visit ended. These are heartwarming moments that I treasure a lot and it was also when I decided that caregiving was my cup of tea.”

Since then, Christina has served close to 60 care recipients aged 75 years and above, and with many diagnosed with dementia. She engages her care recipients with cognitive activities and helps them in their Activities of Daily Living (ADLs). Christina has also assisted seniors with Parkinson’s disease, stroke, depression and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in their ADLs, and has experience in post-hospitalisation care.

She says: “Every care recipient whom I have cared for is memorable. I learned a lot from the seniors, their families and even fellow healthcare professionals and colleagues whom I partnered with for certain care visits – from their life story to how to care for seniors.”

It’s a far cry from the tight reporting deadlines and overnight work that she had to do when she was working as an auditor before she quit to take care of her two boys.

Although her auditing job came with a lucrative paycheck, there were sacrifices that had to be made. “I was pregnant with my second child and my first boy, who was then only a few months old, had to be sent to a nanny during working hours. After my long working hours, in the nights I had problems putting my baby to bed. He just refused to sleep, and I ended up not having enough rest,” says Christina.

She shares that her decision then to quit her job of 12 years was not a spur-of-the-moment decision; she didn’t want to miss out on her boys’ early childhood years. “Every milestone achieved in their early childhood matters a lot to me.”

So in 2008, she became a full-time housewife. Two years later, however, she was thrown a curveball – she took on caregiving roles for her mother who had been discharged from the hospital after a hysterectomy, and her father-in-law, who was ill.

Flexibility – a selling point

As her boys became more independent, Christina decided to look for part-time accounting jobs. However, she chanced upon an ad by Homage, a company that matches care recipients and caregivers, looking for a care professional.

So, in 2018, she jumped right into caregiving on a freelance basis with Homage. The work allows her flexibility in caring for her family while pursuing something she enjoys doing.

Enjoying her work gives her the impetus to go the extra mile, says Christina. For example, once she was engaged to provide weekend respite care for a senior with terminal-stage lung cancer. After a visit, she was on her way home when the woman’s son called, telling Christina that his mother had defecated and she was crying in pain. He was at a loss and did not know what to do.

She says: “I quickly asked the cab driver to turn back so that I could help the senior. After a few hours, the family members also called me to personally give their thanks. At that moment, I felt a sense of fulfilment knowing I was able to help in desperate times of need.”

Care Professional with Patient
Image source: Christina Quah

She works on average about 20 to 30 hours a week depending on the case assigned. To arm her with the required skill set, Christina took mandatory caregiving courses from Homage, as well as courses in CPR and caring for dementia patients.

She is also thankful that she has picked up some skills from being an auditor and a mother – “When I was an auditor, I was trained to be an active listener to understand what my clients wanted. You have to listen with your mind and understand with your heart. Also, being a mother, I mastered the art of patience, which I believe will only happen when you take time and effort to know and understand a person.”

Though her life now is very different from looking at a company’s financial statements, Christina has no regrets making the switch. She does confess however, that she does occasionally miss dressing up and putting on makeup for work!

“Being a care professional has given me a sense of fulfilment, knowing I am able to deliver care to the seniors. To learn that the seniors are constantly looking forward to my next visit – that feeling is something beyond words. It is like building new friendships with the seniors each time I visit them. Also, I love socialising and interacting with the seniors as I get to learn a lot from them too.”

From hospitality to caregiving

Zarenina Begum did a mid career change to become a Professional Caregiver
Image source: Zarenina Begum

Zarenina Begum, 55, has a similar story on her switch to a professional caregiver. She too, gave up her career to care for family. The mother of three was in the hospitality industry for 10 years doing reservations and room service. When her mother got diagnosed with dementia, she took on the role of being her caregiver full-time in 2018.

“My mum’s condition worsened overtime with sleeping disorder, walking non-stop for more than 24 hours, and she would remove her diaper most of the time and pee everywhere. As a caregiver, my stress level reached 200 percent,” shares Zarenina.

Over time, she was unable to continue caring for her and had to make the tough decision to place her mother in a nursing home. “As my mother needed care 24/7 and as a single caregiver, it was better for me to place her in a nursing home. I would have wanted to hire someone to care for her in the night but I wasn’t able to afford that.”

By then, to better care for her mother, Zarenina had already taken several courses to understand more about dementia care and elder caregiving. She also took courses on mood disorder and developmental disabilities. In 2019, Zarenina decided that with her newly-obtained skills, she would try her hand at caregiving, but this time caring for a total stranger.

She also wants to see more Singaporeans being part of the care process rather than just foreigners. While non-Singaporeans are extremely professional as caregivers, she feels that locals can “understand our own people and their needs better”.

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Zarenina started off with Homage and several months later, joined another caregiving company called Jaga-Me.

As a care aide, she has assisted over 100 patients, mostly dealing with respite care. She helps her patients with toileting, showering, brushing their teeth or dentures, and sponge bathing. She also helps to apply moisturisers or bruise creams on their bodies. Some of her other duties include helping patients to move from the bed to the commode or wheelchair and back, feeding and hair drying patients’ hair, assisting on exercise therapy, and even as a medical escort to the hospital or clinic.

Zarenina works from two hours to 12 hours a week depending on the assignment and can make an average of $3,000 a month.

A side benefit is she now also understands her mother better: “Nowadays when I visit my mum at the nursing home, I will smile more. I also understand when she scolds me or gets agitated as this behaviour is similar to the patients I attend to.”

Says Zarenina, “I really enjoy working as a care aide.” She particularly finds fulfilment when her clients are “satisfied and happy”.

“When I see their health improve progressively, it gives me satisfaction in the work I do,” she says.

Like Christina, she too appreciates that her patients look forward to seeing her daily, and added that some patients would even take down her number or e-mail just to keep in touch after her assignment with them is over.

Adapting to life during Covid-19

When Covid-19 hit and the circuit breaker started, both Zarenina and Christina were affected with fewer job assignments and shorter timings. Zarenina ended up being a medical escort for one patient and worked only four days per week for three hours each day. She was also required by her clients to wear gloves and masks at all times. “I got quite a few cancellations as clients got anxious and scared about the possibility of us spreading the virus.”

She also worked part-time in a nursing home, helping with preparing food, changing diapers and making the beds as the nurses and some staff had to be quarantined. As dormitory and import cases increased, she took a four-week break but by early August, Zarenina was back to helping patients at their homes, this time armed with masks and hand sanitisers.

Christina adds: “It was difficult for me to secure caregiving assignments during circuit breaker as there were fewer cases available. I was doing about nine to 13 hours a week, instead of my normal 30 hours. Family members who were now staying at home could take care of their seniors. In my opinion, this is wonderful because they are able to care for their loved ones and understand their needs better. I also saw families become more cautious at having secondary caregivers such as myself in their homes.”

As a result, she has got into the habit of changing clothes each time she enters a senior’s home, and does the seven-step hand washing technique.

Advice to those looking to switch

Not everyone may be cut out to be a professional caregiver, but if this is something you would like to do, Zarenina and Christina have some advice.

For Zarenina, the most important thing is to be patient and a good listener. “Don’t do it because it pays well. Do it with empathy, not sympathy.” She counts her past experience in the hospitality industry as helping her care for her patients better.

Christina adds, “If you are thinking about making a career switch to caregiving, always follow your heart. Caregiving is an extremely meaningful and fulfilling career. It may be challenging at times but knowing that your work will make a positive difference to someone’s life will keep you moving forward.

“Being a caregiver is an extremely rewarding journey and if you think caregiving is your calling – take the leap of faith and embark on it. The experience will provide you with immense learning opportunities and life experiences.”

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Top Image: Christina Quah