Our little community did something different these past two weekends and had a little outing to Institute of Mental Hospital (IMH). We were there to meet a small group of volunteers who had dedicated their weekends there for – some of them – the past 10 years! None of them were certified psychiatrists or doctors or anything of the sort, but in fact come from various walks of life unrelated to medicine. So what could they do to help the IMH residents? Well, they simply chit chat, play simple games or do arts and crafts with them – and to most of the residents, it is just exactly what they need. Not some sophisticated medical equipment or skills, but to have somebody be with them just a little every week.
So who were the residents we were going to meet?
Most of them have something called Schizophrenia. I’m not an expert, so here is something I copied from wikipedia.
Hence, most of the residents are mostly confused – blurring the line between reality and imagination. However, the good news is that most of them are well under control with regular medication. The sad news is, most family members are not able to take proper care of them and unfortunately, they find themselves living in IMH on a long term basis.
So most of us made our way to IMH on Saturday – a little apprehensive about what the day will bring. A lot of us sceptical about how we can actually help the residents since we know so little about their illness and so little about them. Would we be able to handle them appropriately? Would they want us there?
As we stood outside the ward, we took the first glimpse of them. Some of them were doing their own activities like watching tv or chit chatting. But some of them quickly walked up to the door and smiled at us from there. They were clearly pleased and waiting for us to come! Once we got in, they walked up to us, introduced themselves and shook our hands, welcoming us to their home. It was a really warm feeling as it isn’t often you may budge into a stranger’s home and be welcomed like family. We quickly got into groups and it was clear what were some of their favourite activities. Some of us got pulled into mahjong games with some mahjong experts who would win almost every round! We heard that one of them is a checkers expert and still unable to find somebody who could challenge him properly. For myself, I joined two others to play a round of monopoly! Oh the nostalgia. It has been years I played and I don’t remember the rules properly. However, the guys we played with were really sweet and never rush you into anything. They know the rules and will softly prompt you when you get it confused.
After a few rounds of monopoly, I had the opportunity to learn drawing from an arts master! He showed me a really intricate drawing of a dragon and I asked him to teach me something. He quickly got down to business and taught the few of us tigers and eagles and sorts. It was amazing how patient and gentle he was, always encouraging us even though we were fumbling clumsily and awkwardly with our coloured pencils.
Unlike the others, I was one of the few visiting today such that this is not my first visit. During my earlier visits, I spent more time chatting with the residents and got to learn a little of their lives. Previously, I never gave too much thought into what kind of stories or persons they are. I was too focused on their illness and perhaps only thought about how I can make them more comfortable in the present or how can I even help them get better in the future. When we label somebody with something, it is so easy to forget how they are a person with a story just like us. Some of them told me stories of their past including their work, their family and one was so well versed in stock markets I had a hard time catching up in the conversation! A lot of them were exactly like us until this cruel illness took part of their minds away. It took some patience and learning to understand what they say as their illness slurred their speech. But after some time, you will see how they had led a full life, had dreamed the same dreams and had the same hopes just like us.
During our debrief, most of us had the same thoughts. About how we were worried about the session and didn’t know how to react to them. But later, we realize it wasn’t an issue at all because the residents were all so friendly and warm towards us. They offered us biscuits, played with us, talked to us and most of all, they were genuine in all their interactions with us. It was very obvious they gave us their full attention and were really interested in knowing us – which is somewhat hard to find in the outside world with all the electronic distractions and something I am fully guilty of as well.
We were told that if the residents do not get visitors (and they rarely do), they mostly spend their time alone and without outside interaction, their illness will deteriorate. We hope that as time goes by, more people will know about these silent sufferers and be able to pay them a visit – albeit once in a while – to simply chat and be a friend. I assure you they are wonderful people.