June 30, 2022
Photos by: Caroline Chia | Words by: Cassandra Fernandez
(Photo above) Mrs Jane Koe gently massages her husband Mr Alan Koe’s shoulders as they spend time outdoors. Most mornings after breakfast and some exercise, Mrs Koe and her helper take Mr Koe out for some fresh air.
When Mrs Jane Koe was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer in 1999, her first thought was: “How am I going to look after my family?”
Her children were still in school, and she wanted to be around for their many milestones to come. So she underwent intense treatment, and went into remission for a few years. But just when she thought she had beat cancer, she suffered a relapse in December 2018. This time, she was diagnosed with stage four cancer.
Though Mrs Koe is currently under palliative care, the 70-year-old retiree continues to be the main caregiver to her husband. Mr Alan Koe, 69, suffered a stroke in 2017, and since then, Mrs Koe has been by his side supporting his recovery journey.
(Above) Mrs Jane Koe encourages her husband Mr Alan Koe to stay active after he suffered a stroke in 2017. She does rehabilitation exercises with him daily and has enrolled him in a swimming programme conducted by ABLE.
Ongoing chemotherapy leaves her exhausted and mildly nauseous. However, even as she battles her own condition, Mrs Koe still wants to keep caring for her spouse by preparing his breakfast and daily medication, and keeping him on track for all follow-up treatments.
With the support of her stay-in secondary caregiver, Mrs Koe is able to alternate between supervising her husband’s rehabilitation exercises and attending her own oncology visits and chemotherapy sessions.
But sometimes, all she wants is a break.
So for an hour a week, she goes “off duty” and engages in respite programmes at Abilities Beyond Limitations and Expectations (ABLE), a social service agency that supports physically challenged clients and their family caregivers.
Finding a Safe Space with Other Caregivers
Mrs Koe focuses much of her time and energy on living in the present, instead of dwelling on her plight.
Back in 2017, when her husband first returned from the hospital after weeks of acute treatment, family and friends rallied round to help. They encouraged Mrs Koe to push through the challenges. She stayed positive and continued to participate in caregiver programmes, as she sought ways to keep her husband active as he recovered.
(Above) Mrs Elizabeth Chia (centre) and her husband, Mr Patrick Chia, are longtime friends of Mrs Koe. To prevent caregiver burnout, Mrs Koe makes an effort to engage in activities she enjoys and she meets up with friends, like the Chias, to give herself a break from her caregiving duties.
She soon learned about ABLE, and its support programmes and services for stroke survivors, which includes physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, training, and vocational programmes. Mrs Koe enrolled her husband in its swimming programme, through which professionals help rehabilitate stroke survivors, and while he was engaged, she found a bit of down time for self care.
At the same time, she also found a community, and a safe space to share her experiences as a caregiver. She is currently actively involved in ABLE’s caregiver support group and participates in its caregiver respite programmes, including its annual retreats and Tele-Kopi cooking sessions, where she bonds with other caregivers. “I enjoy these sessions as we learn cooking tips and are able to share openly in our small groups about whatever it is we are going through,” she says. “This intimate group is a safe space for caregivers; we can cry and laugh together.”
“I enjoy these sessions as we learn cooking tips and are able to share openly in our small groups about whatever it is we are going through. This intimate group is a safe space for caregivers; we can cry and
Mrs Jane Koe, caregiver to her husband, Mr Alan Koe who suffered a stroke
Mrs Koe also volunteers with the Singapore National Stroke Association (SNSA), through which she connects with a network of other stroke survivors and their caregivers. “I like meeting people from all walks of life and I enjoy doing volunteer work, because it provides an opportunity for me to engage people in conversations and exchange our experiences.”
Keeping Burnout at Bay
Despite battling her own illness, Mrs Koe remains positive and motivated to reach out to those in similar situations. She believes these activities keep her active and prevent her from caregiver burnout — the state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion that may cause a stressed caregiver to feel fatigue, depressed or anxious.
(Above) Mrs Jane Koe applauds when her oldest grandson, Liam Koe, 2, feeds himself at a family dinner. She loves spending time with her three children and grandchildren and is grateful for the time she’s had to watch them grow up. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, her first concerns were of how she would care for her family.
Often, caregivers need physical separation from their care recipients in order to get an adequate break. The cases of caregiver burnout have increased over the last few years, especially since the onset of Covid-19. The pandemic had stopped many physical caregiver programmes and reduced the number of face-to-face therapy sessions. As a result, most caregivers have been unable to leave their care recipients in reliable hands for a short respite.
Mrs Koe can at least rely on her secondary caregiver and children for support, but the same cannot be said for others in similar situations. If you know of anyone who has acquired physical challenges or are family caregivers of the physically challenged and in need of respite programmes, you can reach out to ABLE for more information. Drop them an email at email@example.com or visit their website at www.able-sg.org.