A toy stray cat observes the new owners it has decided to stay with. Ah Ma is made from a plate and a ceramic container. She stays at home all day due to her dementia. Her husband, Ah Gong, a metallic tumbler, was just telling the stray cat about the heavy news he just received from the doctor- he had just been diagnosed with cancer. He is wondering who would be taking care of his wife when he passes away.
This is just one heavy scene in ‘The Wind Came Home’, a puppetry performance about an elderly couple struggling to make difficult end-of-life choices. Written by Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Kok Heng Leun, this is the second run of the show since its first round in September 2014.
The elderly audience who watches the performance
Preparing for death is a difficult topic to broach but an important one. The community-based performance on living and dying, moves across eldercare centres and wellness centres around Singapore where its audience are the elderly who are often living alone. According to the Ministry of Social and Family Development, the number of such elderly people is likely to increase to 83,000 by 2030 – up from 35,000 now. Elderly Singaporeans who live alone are 1.7 times as likely to die prematurely as those living with friends or family according to an ongoing study from Singapore Longitudinal Ageing Studies.
Performed mainly in Mandarin, ‘The Wind Came Home’ originated as part of an immersive arts experience titled BOTH SIDES, NOW: Living with Dying, presented by Lien Foundation and Ang Chin Moh Foundation, and produced by Drama Box and ArtsWok Collaborative.
The current director of the performance, Regina Foo, has been a performer for ‘The Wind Came Home’ since 2014. “While acting, I can feel the shifts in emotions when the audience gets fidgety. It can get awfully quiet. But as a performer, I have to keep moving the story with my fellow performers. Sometimes we perform outdoors so you can never tell what kind of distraction you would get. My job is to keep the audience moving forward in the story,” she said. For the 2016 run, Foo performs alongside Myra Loke and Ellison Tan.
The performance invites the elderly to ponder about living, dying, and the kind of funeral they want, as the audience follows the stories of the Ah Ma and Ah Gong through the eyes of the stray cat. .
“Everyday objects such as towels, plates and bottles are used because it creates a safe space for the elderly to explore this difficult topic. There is an emotional distance between the characters on stage and their own experience. They know it represents them but it’s not as directly relatable as human actors. Plus, they’re cute!” said producer Ngiam Su-Lin. The everyday objects also introduced the role of the social worker who was available to talk to the elderly audience about palliative care, should they wish to talk about it.
On stage, the phone rings. Ah Gong, represented by the metallic tumbler, answers the phone and hears his son’s voice. His son calls to check up on him but Ah Gong knows his son is busy with his own life. The audience grows quiet. Many of them relate to this scene, having busy children of their own.
The facilitator volunteers who watches the audience
Throughout the performance, another group would be watching the reactions of the audience closely. These are the volunteer facilitators who are also close in age with the audience. At the end of the performance, they would sit in between the audience members to talk more about moments in the performance which were significant for them, and introduce them to Advance Care Planning.
Sharon Liew, 67, is one such volunteer. She has been actively volunteering and training in drama projects since 2009, with Drama Box and YAH! (Young-At-Heart) Community College, a non-profit project by Montfort Care which promotes a positive attitude towards ageing.
Madam Liew got to know about the opportunity to be a volunteer facilitator for the Advance Care Planning section through her drama trainer and jumped on the chance as she found volunteering a meaningful way to spend her sunset years. The camaraderie with seniors also makes her feel more alive.
Being a facilitator since ‘The Wind Came Home’ in 2014, she has met many elderly folk and heard many stories. When she observes a shift in emotion in someone, she will approach one senior and ask what his or her view on the show was.
“You get everyone to share a bit but some people don’t. We also use the Advance Care Planning booklet as a tool to open dialogue. Most of the time they say they don’t share their feelings with their children because they don’t know how to, or they have no time. We hope the booklet will help them make it easier” says Madam Liew, identifying with that experience.
The majie who has managed her own death arrangements
Out of her six times as a facilitator, one story stuck out the most. A majie had impressed her with the extent of her plans for her own death. The majie were a group of women who worked as domestic helpers in Singapore between the 1930s and 1970s. They were a distinct group who came from Shun Tak (now known as Shunde District) in China’s Guangdong province. Unlike other domestic helpers, this group of women had taken a vow never to marry. The majie that Madam Liew met had two close friends who had passed away. The three of them took care of each other when they were alive. Now that the friends had passed on, she was the only one who took care of herself, and had even booked her own casket and managed her arrangements for her own death.
Madam Liew herself found lots to learn from how to approach the conversation about death. Since this project started, she has also personally started a conversation with her husband and started to talk about their own deaths.
At the end of the performance, the cat sees Ah Ma, represented by the ceramic container, leave the house. The house is empty, so the cat leaves home too. The conclusion is open ended and up to the interpretation of the audience to facilitate discussion, but perhaps it also gives hope that although death might come to each of us, the stories and experiences of a person lingers on in their loved ones minds.
‘The Wind Came Home’ is presented by Drama Box and ArtsWok Collaborative, in partnership with Lien Foundation and Ang Chin Moh Foundation, and supported by Living Matters and Tote Board Community Healthcare Fund. It toured to 30 eldercare centres in March-April 2016.”
For more information on end-of-life matters, please visit: www.livingmatters.sg
By Nur Safiah Alias
Profile: Safiah likes to bask in the warmth of people’s souls. She’s a freelance writer and editor and has worked in India, Indonesia, and Malaysia but still calls Singapore home. There’s no place like it. Check out her portfolio at nursafiahalias.contently.com.