Ai Lyn Tan, an NHS doctor, has fond memories of celebrating Lunar New Year – also known as Chinese New Year – with her family in Malaysia before her mum Alice developed Alzheimer’s disease. She tells us about the celebrations, and why it just isn’t the same since Alice died.
My mum, Bee Foon, was a nurse. She also went by the name of Alice. She did “everything”, looked after all of us. She was the boss at home, from doing all the housework to managing the household finances. She was very creative and artistic, from her cooking to gardening to crafts and knitting.
Almost seven years ago, my beautiful mum passed away, aged 70. The end of a long goodbye. She had severe advanced Alzheimer’s for 15 years.
Celebrating traditionally while growing up
Chinese New Year was equivalent to Christmas for me when I was growing up. My last “proper” celebration was when I was 19, just before I left for university, so that was before Mum had any symptoms of Alzheimer's.
Mum was always very much part of the celebration, as we would have a traditional 'steamboat' on the eve of Chinese New Year, where Mum would be the main person preparing the meal.
Spending time with family
Waking up on Chinese New Year morning is a magical feeling, the house just feels different that day - festive and happy. We would look our best with new clothes, there would be many visitors, snacking all day, rushing out of the house to catch the neighbours with a Lion Dance ushering prosperity into the homes.
It’s a tradition that elders give younger family red packets of money. People would usually go to the bank to get crisp new notes; my mum would be in charge of that in the family.
When we were kids it was just 1 or 2 ringgit, (20-40 pence) although with inflation kids these days probably expect more! But it wasn’t the amount, it was just the excitement of getting all these red packets.
I had a lot of aunts and uncles and they all came to the house because we lived with my grandfather, the patriarch, so the house was very busy with visitors.
In addition to red packets of money, oranges are exchanged - again back to the circular shape to bring prosperity.
Getting new clothes to symbolise a fresh start
Wearing new clothes symbolises a fresh start to the new year. I have lovely memories of going shopping with Mum for new clothes, and she would also often surprise me with new clothes.
One time she bought me a pink frilly skirt which wasn't to my liking. But now I would give anything to relive that moment, so that I can really treasure the skirt!
Things are different without Mum
Chinese New Year is very different now, not only because I am often working on the day here in the UK, but maybe because just like Christmas - it's a magical time for children, and I'm no longer that!
It also feels like, without Mum, there doesn't seem to be the impetus to celebrate Chinese New Year the way it used to be.
Family is so important, and like a missing link in a chain, sometimes it can feel like the family is no longer “whole". It’s a reminder to not take anyone for granted and cherish every moment because you never know what’s around the corner.
Coping with Mum's dementia
We noticed signs of Mum's dementia in her mid-50s. The disease progressed rapidly, and she stopped recognising the family and became completely dependent on my dad, Wan Liang. We had to stop going out, but she was still always asking to go home
It’s a devastating disease, with huge impact on family and friends who have to go through gut-wrenching experiences. It’s not just about forgetting things.
I really benefitted from Alzheimer’s Society’s Dementia Support Forum – it was good to be able to learn and share from others on the forum.
That’s why I fundraise for Alzheimer’s Society - I believe in helping them support crucial research into the disease and to support loved ones who have to bear the burden.
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