Caregiver’s 9 years in Taiwan a life-changing journey

TAIPEI (CNA) – When Yusni graduated from high school in West Java at the age of 17, she faced a tough job market with precious few openings that would allow her to support her family or save money to go to college. (Photo Credit: One-Forty)

TAIPEI (CNA) – When Yusni graduated from high school in West Java at the age of 17, she faced a tough job market with precious few openings that would allow her to support her family or save money to go to college.

Learning by chance from a friend about her experiences in Taiwan, Yusni moved to Taiwan to work as a caregiver, embarking on a nine-year journey that has taken her through the full gamut of emotions and been nothing short of life-changing.

“The person I am now is much different than the person I was before,” Yusni, 26, told CNA in an interview on Jan. 22 as she looked back over her journey that was to come to an end just days later.

Speaking in Mandarin, Yusni (who like many Indonesians goes by a single name) recalled that when she first arrived in Taiwan she had no direction in life except to work hard to remit money home.

It was only when she got the chance to make more Taiwanese friends and decided to take advantage of being in Taiwan to enrich herself that her outlook on life began to change.

After making many Taiwanese friends and having discussions with them on “sensitive” topics that were not talked about among her Indonesian friends, Yusni said she became more of a critical thinker rather than somebody resigned to her fate.

When Taiwanese friends questioned Islamic teachings, for example, she would think about whether what they said was justified, something she never did in the past because she had always been taught to accept everything about the teachings.

“I hope I’ll be able to have that same ‘cool’ attitude after I return home instead of living my life based on what other people think,” said Yusni, who returned to Indonesia on Jan. 25.

In her first four years in Taiwan, Yusni had little chance to make friends with Taiwanese because she had to work almost around the clock caring for an elderly woman from Hunan, China, who had dementia and whose children lived abroad.

That changed in the fifth year when the elderly woman was put in a nursing home, which enabled Yusni to have a regular day off every month, instead of a day off every three months as was the case previously.

By that time, her relationship with the person in her care was excellent, but it did not start out that way.

Providing care to a person with dementia and aged-related hearing loss would have been difficult for anyone at the age of 17, and it was particularly challenging for Yusni because the patient spoke with a strong Hunan accent and she knew very little Mandarin.

Initially, arguments with the “Hunan grandma” happened frequently, according to Yusni, who blamed herself for having a quick temper and a lack of understanding of dementia.

But they soon became very close after Yusni learned how to better accommodate the challenging behavioral problems associated with the disease.

“I’m so grateful to Hunan grandma and to her strong accent,” Yusni said, when asked how she eventually managed to overcome the language barrier.

Yusni said she was “dead serious” about learning Mandarin and improving her pronunciation at the time, “hoping I could speak like grandma’s neighbors did so she could understand me.” Today she speaks Mandarin as fluently as a native and has also mastered reading, writing and listening comprehension skills, which are highly sought after in Indonesia’s job market.

The grandmother passed away in February 2017 after seven years in Yusni’s care, an event that had a lasting impact on the Indonesian native.

“Even though I missed her so much, I didn’t have the courage to look at photos of her until recently (because I couldn’t bear the grief),” she said.

Yusni suffered another blow when an elderly woman she was hired to care for died of an illness in May the same year.

The two deaths within three months of each other caused significant stress to Yusni, who told her agent she wanted to go back to Indonesia.

But the sorrow felt by the late woman’s husband over the loss of his wife made her change her mind.

“Grandpa’s children all went back to their respective homes after grandma’s funeral service. He locked himself in his room and cried,” Yusni said.

“I was thinking it would be very unkind of me to leave grandpa under the circumstances. I didn’t have the heart to do that. So I stayed.” During the past 22 months, Yusni has accompanied the now 95-year-old man on visits to many places meaningful to him – including Tamsui, Yonghe, and Zhonghe in New Taipei, Yangmingshan in Taipei, and most recently the city’s most famous Lunar New Year market on Dihua Street – mainly to distract his mind from negative thoughts.

Though there was still a year remaining on her contract, Yusni recently decided to return to Indonesia to work, hoping to preserve her memory of the elderly man while he was still healthy and active.

It was not an easy decision to make, however.

“I’ve been in Taiwan for so many years and have such a close relationship with the grandpa that I was reluctant to leave. I’ve made friends with many Taiwanese, and I won’t be able to see my Indonesian friends as often in the future as now,” she said.

Despite the pain of saying goodbye, however, Yusni said she was also looking forward to embarking on a new life back home.

“After so many years of providing around-the-clock care, I’ve wanted to be able to one day wake up when I feel like it. It’s been one of my dreams.” With the remittances sent home over the past nine years by Yusni, the only income earner of her family of five, her parents have purchased a plot of land to farm and have been able to pay for their second daughter’s college education and raise their youngest daughter, who is 9 years old.

In addition to supporting her family, Yusni has made use of her very limited breaks from caregiving to assist Taiwanese nongovernmental organizations in taking groups on cultural tours of an area around Taipei Main Station known as “Indonesian street” or “Little Jakarta.” She also completed her bachelor’s degree in management under a program offered by Indonesia Open University for migrant workers.

Looking back at her time in Taiwan, Yusni considers the changes she has observed in herself as serendipitous, the result to some extent of her relationship with her two employers, “who were both very nice to me.” Yusni encouraged her fellow migrant workers in Taiwan to be more active in society and exchange ideas with others and also to tell their employers they need regular days off as a buffer against the stresses of caregiving.

She also hoped employers can talk with their caregivers more and listen to what they have to say instead of being discouraged by a lack of understanding because of language barriers.

Yusni also hoped that a mandatory day off per week for migrant caregivers will be enshrined in Taiwan’s labor laws, because “caregiving is a type of job that brings enormous pressure.” Her native-level proficiency in Mandarin earned Yusni job offers from two companies based in Indonesia before she returned home and she finalized a position with one of them earlier this month.

But the opportunities that await her will never erase the memories of her life-changing nine years in Taiwan, and she insisted she will be back to visit.

“I will return to Taiwan to complete my dream of traveling around Taiwan,” she vowed.