Her son has schizophrenia. She has polio. That has not stopped Elsie Tan from declaring: “I think we are quite a happy family.”
But she has one worry: Her eldest son’s future when she is gone.
Tan says her other son will have to take care of his own family, and her husband is already approaching 70.
“You know, some day I will be dead, I cannot take care of my son forever. I want him to be able to be independent and take care of himself,” said the 63-year-old.
Tan is one of the 300-odd caregivers under the Caregivers’ Association of the Mentally Ill (CAMI). Most are single parents.
They fear their children who are mentally ill (many of them suffer from schizophrenia) will not be able to integrate into society after they are gone.
“In some cases, when a mother dies, the siblings who are already so busy with work will put their mentally-ill brother or sister into a centre,” she said.
In other cases, the children may be left to fend for themselves.
“Some parents can leave their children with mental illness a lot of money after they are gone. But if the children don’t know how to take care of themselves, they are going to be taken advantage of and they may end up with nothing.
“Then there are children who need jobs; if they cannot find a decent job and make a decent living, who will pay their bills when we are gone?”
Tan said it is a difficult journey for any parent, but they must help their children blend into society.
She said: “I know some parents, out of fear, keep their mentally-ill children away from the public. They are afraid that their children will be bullied and stigmatised. But to tell you the truth, parents need to accept their children first, before the society can accept them.”
She admitted that she had trouble accepting her son’s illness when he was diagnosed.
“I cursed everyone but myself. I kept asking, ‘will he get married?’
Her son was diagnosed 10 years ago. He was about to complete his national service when he started behaving strangely.
“I thought he was stressed out from his duties in the army and I did not look too deep into it.
“Because for a parent to think that their child might be mentally ill, it is very hurtful. It is always easier to think that he is rebellious and wait for the phase to pass.”
But the situation worsened. Her son ran away from home.
When the police found him, they advised her to take him to a hospital. She was reluctant, but gave in when he threatened to run off to a friend’s place.
So she took him to a hospital and soon he was warded for schizophrenia.
“He would not talk to me. He told the warden not to let me in to see him. I still went to see him anyway, but I stayed far from him, just to see how he was doing.
“When he was diagnosed, I went to see a tangki (Taoist medium) and after a ritual he said to me, ‘your son is not disturbed by any spirit. He is really sick, you should take him to the hospital.’
“That was my wake-up call. I made the decision to attend classes about schizophrenia.”
When her son moved back home with her one year later, she was not the same woman he ran away from. She knew about his illness. She knew about his strengths and shortcomings and she was accepting.
“As parents, you can teach your children how to deal with the larger public. Then they will learn and they can integrate back into society.”
“But the mentally-ill needs support to get back into society. The government is making a lot of initiatives to help people with special needs; why can’t we include those who are mentally ill?
This year the government has poured $30 million to help people with disabilities to find employment. But there is still little emphasis on those with serious mental disorders.
Tan said: “Both public and private sectors can be more open to giving them jobs.
“Maybe if he was a lawyer, he cannot represent a client in court anymore. But he can still be a legal aide.”
Before getting on her electric bike and zooming off to see her 35-year-old son, she smiled and said: “Don’t feel sorry for them. They can be independent. I say that to my son all the time.”
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