British Columbia

Home care for elderly family members can't be done alone

Meet Yin Lee. She's 73 years old and provides unpaid home care to her husband, Yew Kuan Lee, who has Alzheimer's.

Seniors advocate says one third of unpaid family caregivers stressed to the point of breakdown

Yin Lee with her husband Yew Kuan Lee (Y.K. to his friends) at the ASK Friendship Society in Marpole. ASK provides respire care that makes a difference for both Yin and Y.K. (Elaine Chau/CBC)

In B.C., thousands of people provide unpaid home care to elderly loved ones as a way to delay sending them to care homes.

According to B.C.'s  seniors advocate, a third of those unpaid family caregivers are stressed to the point of breakdown because of gaps in respite programs.

One such caregiver is Yin Lee. At 73 years of age, she is a senior herself, but still provides home care to her husband, Yew Kuan Lee, who suffers from Alzheimer's.

"He'll be walking around, turning on all the lights, closing all the windows," Yin Lee says with a laugh. "His memory is so short that even one minute later, he's forgotten."

Yew Kuan Lee — Y.K. to his friends — is 76, and made a career as an electrical engineer, which might explain his fascination with light switches.

Y.K. was diagnosed with Alzheimer's five years ago. His condition, and all the things that go with it, provide challenges every day for Yin Lee.

'I used to cry a lot'

Y.K. can't be left alone to change. He often puts on two of everything.

Getting shoes on the right feet is another challenge.

He also needs to be reminded about his medication every morning before his depression sets in.

But still, Yin Lee doesn't want to put him into a care home.

"I can't let go of him to residential care. Because I think in the back of our minds, we think it's so pitiful. He's still family, right? And what happens if he goes there and no one looks after him? So that's what worries me," she said.

She says she's come a long way since the initial diagnosis.

"At first it was hard, you know? I used to cry a lot," she said.

But Yin Lee says things have improved since she's learned to get help from community resources.

Respite to the rescue

Yin Lee gets Y.K. Lee ready for his time at ASK Friendship Society. He stays there for a few hours three times a week so Yin Lee can have a rest. (Elaine Chau/CBC)
One place that has helped is ASK Friendship Society in Marpole. It's an adult daycare that provides respite for caregivers like Yin Lee. She drops Y.K. off there for a few hours a day, three days a week.

Christine Stardom is the executive director of ASK. She says that Yin Lee has been an inspiration to other caregivers.

"I have such admiration for Yin. She knows how to reach out and get support." Stardom said.

Stardom says that in addition to day care, she often recommends that care givers check their loved ones into respite for one or two week stretches to give them time to recharge and come back to their duties fresher.

Yin Lee plans to start transitioning Y.K. into such an arrangement next month.

To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: The life of a 73-year-old caregiver


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