In an ageing society like Singapore, many Singaporeans like you and I may eventually find ourselves taking on a caregiver role for a loved one. In fact, it is estimated that there are 210,000 caregivers here in Singapore, with close to 70 per cent of them being above the age of 40.
As the aged population in Singapore continues to grow — and more family caregivers start to face caregiver burnout from juggling with their work and caregiving demands — many people have turned to engaging external help such as professional caregivers and home care nurses.
While engaging home care services may not be new, pursuing professional caregiving as a freelance job can certainly be quite novel and unconventional, especially amongst the younger generation. So why did 20-year-old Chew Zhan Eng, a Gen Z student, decide to become a freelance caregiver?
I spoke to Zhan Eng over a video call, where he shared with me enthusiastically about his motivations and why he chose to pick up caregiving as a freelance job before enlisting into National Service (NS).
Responses below have been lightly edited for readability and clarity.
Why did you choose to pursue caregiving as a freelance job?
Zhan Eng: Let me begin from the start. I graduated from Singapore Polytechnic with a diploma in Applied Chemistry and realised that working in a lab or with chemicals wasn’t something that I wanted to pursue in the long run. So before enlisting into NS, I wanted to see what kind of experiences I can get in the healthcare sector, because I want to join the healthcare industry in the future and my mum has always instilled the belief in me that it’s important to help others.
Zhan Eng and his father at his graduation ceremony in May 2022
There was also a period of time in my life where I went through something quite scary and I don’t want others to experience what I went through. Back when I was 17 or 18 years old, I suffered from severe breathlessness for a period of six months. There were some nights where I had to keep myself awake to consciously make an effort to breathe, and that took a huge mental and emotional toll on myself as I wasn’t getting enough rest. I also didn’t know if I could continue doing the things I love, which are outdoor sports and activities. Doctors were unfortunately also unable to find the issue of my breathlessness even after I was admitted to the ICU twice, but thankfully the problem eventually went away on its own.
I believe that was quite a pivotal moment as to why I wanted to join caregiving to help others alleviate their burdens and problems as I truly don’t want anyone to feel as alone as I did during that period of time. On top of that, I wanted to also pursue physiotherapy in the future, and thought caregiving was a great way for me to get some hands-on experience, especially since it involves assisting others with their mobility as well.
I decided to apply for a caregiver position with Homage as I wanted more experience in the community care setting and was looking for something more short-term before I enlisted into NS. There are not many healthcare jobs out there that accept people without any experience needed and with no minimum commitment, so this was a perfect opportunity for me to hone my caregiving skills, while earning some money as well during my free time. That being said, the money was more a bonus for me. With this job, I mainly wanted to gain exposure and experience with the healthcare sector and thought this was a great life experience to talk about in any of my future education or work endeavours.
What were some of the memorable moments you’ve had as a professional caregiver?
Zhan Eng: On multiple occasions, I was able to witness the deep love and hope that the family members or primary caregivers showed to the person I was caring for, even when the situation seemed dire for them to significantly recover.
I have multiple good memories with those under my care, especially when I see them laughing or smiling when I talk to them. It means a lot to me that my care recipients are engaged in our conversations and find joy in some of the stories or jokes I share with them.
One particularly memorable incident was when one of my care recipients, Mr G, who was a quiet and reserved man, started to laugh at me while I was showering him because the bar of soap that I was holding slipped out of my hands five times!
Have you forged close bonds with the people you cared for?
Zhan Eng: The people I care for were all once strangers to me and I am appreciative beyond words for many who have welcomed me as a family friend. There is one in particular that I would like to mention who, together with his family, have become more than just friends to me, and have taught me to be a better caregiver.
During one of my visits with Mr Ravi*, I had to transfer him from his bed to a wheelchair. Due to my height and limited experience as a caregiver, I had unintentionally pushed his chin too far up that it was straining his neck.
Though his family and himself had the right to be upset with my incompetence, they were instead very kind in providing feedback on how I could better transfer him in the future, which is to have him “hug” my chest during the transfer. Their hospitality has also made me respect Mr Ravi and his family as teachers, and also helped me better manage my emotions and expectations for future visits.
Though it was a short time that I had spent with him and his family, I am greatly in debt for their warmth as it helped me gain greater confidence in my delivery of care as a professional caregiver.
*Name has been altered for privacy.
Given that you’ve had some negative experiences, do you have any advice for other caregivers who encounter difficult or aggressive patients?
Zhan Eng: It’s important to always have the highest regard for your personal safety. Try not to take things personally and prioritise your own well-being when your care recipients get aggressive.
For adamant clients, be able to stand your ground and not entirely comply with their requests if they stand in the way of your service to them, yet remember to be soft in your delivery and provide reasonings and options for them to choose. For example, I had one regular client who did not like to shower. In the midst of showering, he would repeatedly instruct me in a stern manner to be faster. While I was already trying my best to be fast, I also had to make sure that he was clean, so I always replied to him in a light-hearted and happy tone, and said something like “If you don’t allow me to shower you, your family member will come and scold me for not doing my work!”. Sometimes I would also say things like, “Help me shampoo your head so we’ll be able to finish showering much faster together!”. Overall, make sure that you complete the tasks that the family engaged you for and try your best to accommodate any requests unless it is absolutely impossible.
Of course, do make sure that you have a good support system outside of work too. This applies to other lines of work – sometimes you will feel tired and will need a listening ear to let out your emotions. There’s no shame in sharing your feelings with a loved one! After all, we are all social creatures and are bound to need emotional support from the people around us.
If a care recipient is being really demanding and you feel really affected at that point in time, remember to take a deep breath and remind yourself on why you decided to be a caregiver in the first place. For me, I’ll always remind myself of why I joined this line of work and how many people have benefitted from my help so far. As long as you try your best, that’s all that matters.
What are some things a caregiver should know when they go on their first visit?
Zhan Eng: Though being new to any job can be scary, go with the flow and never stop learning on the job! Be open to making mistakes, but remember to always learn from your mistakes such that you won’t make the same mistakes again in the future.
If possible, do provide the option for the people you care for to also be engaged and involved for the sake of their independence and dignity. For example, I would usually ask my care recipients to wash their groins themselves, so that they maintain their sense of dignity and feel that I have respected them enough to trust them to do certain things by themselves. After all, no one likes to be demanded to do things nor lose control over their daily living activities.
On top of that, it’ll also be good to learn range of motion (ROM) exercises and some simple muscle stretching exercises for the whole body. Stretching is especially useful for care recipients who are bedridden and you can potentially help to limit their drop foot (difficulty lifting the front part of the foot) and muscle stiffness symptoms!
Lastly, always have adequate gloves on you! Remember to make sure to ask if your care recipients have any allergies to latex if you are using latex gloves.
What do you like most about being a freelance care professional (CP)?
Zhan Eng: Being a CP has allowed me to witness life at its difficult stages. They help me reflect on what meaningful things I wish to achieve or do in life and live my life to its fullest. I have also been able to really appreciate what I have been given in life, especially for my able body.
Zhan Eng rock climbing with his fellow CCA mate
I take pride in being able as an individual to elevate other people’s burden and journey with them through their illnesses or daily life, even though my help may only be temporary.
What are some things you like to do in your free time?
Zhan Eng: I love the outdoors, so I love activities like sailing and rock climbing. I also loved the activities conducted by Outward Bound Singapore (OBS) – one really memorable one was a sailing expedition route to Bintan.
Zhan Eng and his team taking off for their first ever hiking expedition at OBS Campsite 1
Zhan Eng and his team on their sailing expedition to Bintan
Despite being just 20 years old, it was clear that Zhan Eng has a strong desire to help and serve others in any way he can. It’s inspiring to meet young people like Zhan Eng who genuinely want to make a tangible difference in the lives of others — and it certainly is heartening to know that we have such resilient and enthusiastic caregivers with us here at Homage.
Interested to be a caregiver? ❤️
Being a Homage caregiver is not about having the right formal qualifications. What’s important is having the right heart and a dedicated attitude to help others with their daily living tasks and self-care needs.