Love without borders: A lesson from Abah

Love without borders: Abah and family with former exchange student Emily Kearns

By Cecilia Chan 

Emily Kearns sat on the wooden floor in Kampung Melayu, Johor Bahru, sipping tea with her Malay family, with whom she was reunited after 47 years.

It was day two of her trip back home to Malaysia to visit her Malaysian family, particularly to spend time with Abah. Emily shared that it might be their last time together with Abah; she had come to say goodbye. You see, Abah is living with Parkinson’s andmentia.

Despite the challenges, the family members have grown closer. Abah’s condition has forced them to slow down in this fast-paced world and focus on the important aspects of life. It provides them a way of being together that allows each other to be authentic and tap into each other’s inner strength and wisdom.

Ultimately, they learn that the best tool they have to manage the challenges brought about by dementia is the strength of the family.

Having worked in the world of dementia for two decades, I have been exposed to many profound life-changing stories. But Emily’s intimate sharing touched me uniquely and deeply.

It was Emily who contacted me all the way from Baltimore in the US. She was reaching out to me to provide support to her family in Malaysia. They were struggling and in desperation over how to deal with their father living with Parkinson’s and dementia.

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What touched me was that Emily, an exchange student in Malaysia back in 1977, had remained close to her Malaysian family after almost five decades. She had always remained connected with the family, and over the years, she had returned several times despite the high travel costs.

As I journeyed with this amazing family, I learned that love indeed can conquer fear in dealing with dementia. If you look at Abah, he may look so fragile, so weak. But if you look closer and deeper, you can feel and almost touch his kindness, human compassion and authentic love.

Emily shared that despite the strong objections from his kampong dwellers, he persisted in opening his home to a young female teenage ‘Mat Salleh’. It was especially rare in a very traditional Malay setting.

Abah welcomed young Emily into his home and life. Emily stayed only for one short year but it had a lasting impact on all of them.

This happened because of one man, who believes in humanity, that despite our differences, we are all part of one human race. That lesson lives on in the lives of his children, Emily included.

In facing the challenges of the world of dementia, this lesson serves as strong guidance, a glue that holds them together.

As I reflect on my journey in the world of dementia, both personally and professionally, I am reminded how stigma pervades casual conversation and language – and just how damaging this stigma can be.

Navigating a world riddled with labels, judgement and shaming can be exhausting, painful and disheartening for anyone. For people with dementia and their care partners, this compounds an already challenging circumstance – in acknowledging the condition, getting a diagnosis, and seeking treatment.

I am reminded of words of the famous holocaust survivors, Dr Edith Eger and Dr Victor Frankl, that we have the choice on how we view life, including a life with dementia.

This family chose to focus on their strength, which is love, as lovingly taught by their Abah.

Love can be the antidote to fear, as this family teaches us.

Our painful experiences aren’t a liability – they’re a gift. They give us perspective and meaning, an opportunity to find our unique purpose and our strength. – Dr Edith Eger

Dr Cecilia Chan is a gerontologist, activist and advocate for people living with dementia

The views expressed in Aliran’s media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran’s official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran’s official position.

AGENDA RAKYAT – Lima perkara utama

  1. Tegakkan maruah serta kualiti kehidupan rakyat
  2. Galakkan pembangunan saksama, lestari serta tangani krisis alam sekitar
  3. Raikan kerencaman dan keterangkuman
  4. Selamatkan demokrasi dan angkatkan keluhuran undang-undang
  5. Lawan rasuah dan kronisme
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