Caption: Irene enjoying the therapeutic effects of her lovely paintings at home
“I realised I needed space to do the things I enjoy, to breathe some fresh air. As a caregiver, you can still do things that make you happy. You can learn something new while taking care of your loved ones. If you can’t go out, you can do things at home. If you do not expand your world, when your loved ones are gone, you will be all alone.”
Irene’s artistic flair caught the attention of her teachers when she was in primary two. Her drawing of a satay man selling food by the road side left her teachers in awe. They were so impressed by her intricate and expressive artwork that they displayed her painting in school even after she graduated.
The 57-year-old talented artist has since produced a few hundred paintings ever since she quit her merchandising job some 15 years ago to focus on her artistic pursuits. Irene specialises in acrylics, oils, pastels and water colour painting. Art has since become her sanctuary, offering respite and giving her comfort, as she took on the role of a caregiver some eight years ago.
Caption: Irene (right) relaxing with her mother Mdm Boh, (left) against a backdrop of her favourite lion painting
Caption: Irene’s first exhibition – “The Gathering of the Lions” – held in 2014, featured 49 lion paintings by her, and some of her students and friends.
Facing life’s trials with grit and tenacity
Being the only child and the sole bread winner taking on multiple responsibilities, Irene often feels emotionally and mentally drained. She faces the arduous task of caring for her 83-year-old mother Mdm Boh Chong Lin 24/7. She scrubs the floor, prepares meals, manages medical appointments, and helps her mother bathe and brush her teeth.
On good days, Irene is able to work on her art work undisturbed and even finds time to run errands outside. On bad days, she would be in a constant state of vigilance, assuming the role of a tireless guardian especially during night time. To keep her mother safe, Irene would keep away the knives and sharp objects, and not let her out of her sight.
“It is tough as a caregiver. I can be perpetually on edge when my mother’s condition is unstable. I would worry about whether my mother would harm herself when I am asleep. I have to anticipate her every move,” said Irene.
In touch with oneself
One day, while reflecting on her life, Irene wondered how she would feel if she were on her death bed. It dawned on her that she should carve out time for self-care. It marked a turning point for her.
Caption: Art provides an emotional outlet for Irene to enjoy the moment and experience spiritual connection
Caption: Irene posing with her motorcycle painting which took eight hours of intense focus and precision
“I realised I needed space to do the things I enjoy, to breathe some fresh air. As a caregiver, you can still do things that make you happy. You can learn something new while taking care of your loved ones. If you can’t go out, you can do things at home. If you do not expand your world, when your loved ones are gone, you will be all alone,” said Irene.
Irene’s greatest challenge was during the pandemic when her mother’s dementia worsened. She stopped going to church even as many of her friends stayed home. During that time, she was working on a major art piece when my mother suffered a meltdown. “I had to move my easle from my art room to the main hall so I could keep an eye on her every move. I always tell people, each of my painting is a miracle. Every brush stroke is filled ‘sweat and blood’,” added Irene.
Not losing hope
When asked what keeps her going, Irene said, “My faith is my pillar; it gives me hope. When I draw and paint, I feel a burst of energy. When you have passion, you can walk through life’s obstacles. I also meditate to focus on my inner strength,” said Irene.
Other than selling her art pieces, Irene also uses them to touch the hearts of people. “A picture speaks a thousand words. Through my painting, I sometimes see people tear. They don’t tell me how they feel all the time because it is personal, but I know they were touched,” added Irene.
Caption: Irene conducting an art session for caregivers at TOUCHpoint@AMK 433
In 2022, Irene was referred to TOUCHpoint@AMK 433. She was then invited by TOUCH’s social worker to join Carers’ Circle, a support group for caregivers. Other than meeting other caregivers, Irene was able to contribute by conducting her first art lesson in May 2023. “I make the best use of my time when my mother feels fine. We will both attend the caregivers support group. I also enjoy imparting my artistic skills to others and doing what I can to bring joy to people’s lives,” said Irene.
Story published in 2023