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Publication Date : 14-01-2013
With the Alzheimer thief aprowl, a daughter chronicles her journey with her mother in a new book
Well-known acting coach Onchuma Yuthavong has spent the last 14 years cherishing good memories of her mother. Reflecting on the good old days of the relationship is her indispensable healing tool. The recollections have helped her cope better with the sadness of seeing her 84-year-old mum's memory irreparably deteriorating since being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease at the age of 70.
"Elders have advised me not to do things in life that will cause irreparable emotional damage later," she says. "It's important because, down the line, such things are impossible to repair when Alzheimer's gets in the way."
Although Alzheimer's develops differently in different individuals, the common symptoms include long-term memory loss, personality change and impaired reasoning. As the disease advances, patients can become confused, irritable and aggressive, undergo mood swings and have trouble communicating.
Onchuma's mother has reached the advanced stage, but it was only recently that she began to forget who Onchuma was - perhaps the disease's most excruciating aspect for a loved one. To overcome the emotional pain, Ochuma strives to recount the good times, and she shares them in her new book, "My Beloved Journal" ("Banteuk Klai Jai").
It's a collection of short essays, lavishly illustrated by Krirkbura Yomnage, about her journeys, observations on life and memories of people and places, with her mum always in the background.
The book is among various charitable activities organised by the Group of Philanthropists, which Onchuma founded with friends in support of the Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorder Association. The group aims to raise public awareness about memory-related diseases in the hope of better prevention and better care of patients.
"Thai people still don't know much about Alzheimer's, even though there are many sufferers here," says Onchuma. "I want my readers to realise the importance of cherishing the good memories, because one day someone you love might be stricken with memory loss."
The most difficult part of dealing with Alzheimer's is taking care of the sufferer. It requires total commitment in terms of time and energy. The past 14 years have taken a toll on Onchuma emotionally and professionally. She set up an acting studio at her home so she could always be close if her mother needed her, even though she has an assistant keeping an eye on her mum.
While she's coaching celebrities in acting and giving corporate clients lessons in "personality improvement", Onchuma is always mindful that her mother has unpredictable mood swings that often require more than one person to attend to. The simple inability to find her toothbrush can make her mother's frustrations explode into tears. The next moment she might be loudly laughing.
"I was unable to paint for seven years because taking care of my mum took up so much of my time, and it made me sad. But then I learned how to ease the emotional pain by remembering the good times, and I started painting again recently.
"Currently I'm training seven DJs in eloquent speaking, and they come round here for classes so that I don't need to go out."
Onchuma's 14 years of hard work culminated in the dreaded moment when her mother could no longer remember her. It spelled the end of their dear relationship. Her mum recalls the name "Onchuma", but doesn't recognise her daughter. She'll ask Onchuma if she knows where her daughter is.
"It's painful to see your loved one unable to remember you. She sometimes forgets how to swallow food. I take the hit directly because, as a dramatist, I'm very receptive to painful things like this. I feel strongly about it."
Writing the book was a way of preserving the good memories and thus comforting her mind. The memories have a healing power. If her mum no longer knows who she is, at least Onchuma has the ability to reunite with the mother she knew in the past.
"The subjects in the book make me happy. They remind me of my mum, even though she can no longer remember those events. All the stories have her in the background. Reminiscing about the past has helped me manage the pain better. It works! It shows in how I've been able to go back to painting again."
At the recent book launch, a speaker pointed out that Alzheimer's doesn't strike only the elderly, but middle-aged people too. His 50-year-old businesswoman mother had been diagnosed.
"More people than ever are ailing with Alzheimer's, but Thais tend to think it's just normal memory failure. In fact, you need proper medical attention and regular medication."
The Crown Property Bureau Foundation's Klai Jai Book Project supports "My Beloved Journal", which is written in Thai and costs 295 baht (US$9) at leading bookshops, with proceeds going to the Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorder Association.