A daughter’s challenges caring for 122-year-old mother

By Hai Hien, Quynh Nguyen   November 7, 2023 | 10:54 pm PT
Ever since her mother’s vision worsened five years ago, Hat has become a shadow by her mother’s side that never leaves, always at her beck and call.

"My mother used to be able to walk by herself, but when her vision became blurry, I had to do everything for her," said Nguyen Thi Hat, a 74-year-old norther Vietnamese woman living in Pham Khe village, northern Hai Duong Province. As she spoke she was moving her mother from her bed to the bathroom.

When the clock struck 11 a.m., she went down to the kitchen to prepare lunch, scooping rice into the bowls and cutting up some Vietnamese pork sausage for her mother. Hat’s own portion only contained some rice and vegetables she harvested from her garden.

Hat (wearing the flower shirt) helps her 122-year-old mother to the bathroom in their home in northern Hai Duong Province, Oct. 30, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/ Hai Hien

Hat (wearing the flower shirt) helps her 122-year-old mother to the bathroom in their home in northern Hai Duong Province, Oct. 30, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/ Hai Hien

Hat’s mother is Nguyen Thi Co, born in 1901. For decades, her youngest daughter Hat has been her sole caretaker, as her eldest daughter lives far away and her grandchildren’s finances are limited.

When Hat was young, she was content with never marrying and was happy living with her parents because she was worried no one would take care of them if she left. At 28, she met a suitor who sympathized with her situation and promised to live with her parents. Only then did she agree to marry him.

When she was four months pregnant, her husband changed his mind and told her he wanted them to live with his parents 20km away. Co also advised her to listen to her husband, but when Hat saw her father sick and paralyzed in his bed, she did not have the heart to leave. Her marriage ended soon after.

A few years passed before someone else came along to ask her hand in matrimony. Hat regrettably declined his offer, as the pain from her first marriage had yet to subside, and she had to think about her elderly parents and young child.

"If I’m off chasing my own happiness, who will take care of my parents?" she asked.

Hat has remained single ever since.

Her father passed away at the end of 1982 from illness. Her family of three then had to rely solely on their paddy fields. Sometimes they would catch crabs or fish to eat with their meals, but Hat would always let her mother and child eat it. Perhaps that is why her weight remained a worrying 33kg all these years.

The family used to make a living growing rice. However, ever since her mother Co’s vision deteriorated and she became unable to walk by herself, Hat abandoned their paddy fields. From that day, the mother and daughter lived hand to mouth on Co’s pension, which was only VND1.3 million (US$53) per month.

With no other source of income, Hat is hesitant to turn on the TV or electric fan because she is afraid of wasting electricity. There are only two things in their house that they turn on: the rice cooker and the lights. To save money, before turning on the rice cooker Hat will boil the water on a wood stove and then pour it into the cooker so the rice will cook faster.

"Only by doing that will our electricity bill be VND50,000 per month, the exact amount that the government gives for poor households’ electricity bills," the 74-year-old woman said.

With their meager sum of money, Hat is reluctant to go to the clinic whenever she gets sick because she is afraid of being diagnosed with something that is not covered by her health insurance. But if her mother is tired, she does not hesitate to call a doctor, as she believes that the elderly should get the best care.

Aside from bathing and feeding her mother, Hat will also carry her to the hammock and then turn on the radio—their only source of entertainment throughout the day.

Every night, she leads her mother to the bathroom four to five times. Hat said she has thus not had a good night’s sleep in years.

There are times when an elderly person can act like a child. Sometimes, when Co calls for her daughter and she does not respond, she will sulk and abandon her meals. Whenever this happens, Hat cannot help but cry. But if she is upset, who will take care of her mother? With this thought in her mind, Hat ignores her sadness.

Nguyen Huu Hang, the village head of Pham Khe, said that the reason 122-year-old Co still has a good memory and healthy body is because her daughter takes care of her so well.

"Even though she’s the oldest in our village, her hair is still black. Her teeth are even growing back," Hang said.

There are even times when at community events he’s joked that Co should have to sit at the young people’s table because she would look out of place sitting with silver-haired elderly people.

Hat helps her mother Co up to go eat lunch in their home, Oct. 30, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/ Quynh Nguyen

Hat helps her mother Co up to go eat lunch in their home, Oct. 30, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/ Quynh Nguyen

When speaking about Hat’s and Co’s situation, Hang stated that they are one of the seven poor households in the village that receives special treatment. Aside from having full health insurance coverage, they also receive support from the government. Butt it is not enough for the mother and daughter to live comfortably.

They have nothing of value in their 50-year-old house. They also do not throw anything away, not even their wooden cabinet with a broken leg. Hat said they’ve also ignored the mold and plaster flaking off their home’s walls.

Every time it rains, water seep through their roof and leaks into their house. Hat and her mother’s only recourse is covering the floor with buckets to catch the water. In 2018, their roof collapsed on top of them while they slept. With no money for repairs, local authorities and their relatives helped pay for renovations to the roof and walls.

Until the work had been completed they weren’t able to go to bed without intense anxiety about the same thing happening again.

Though she has to live off her mother’s pension, Hat is proud that she has very little debt.

After seeing how hard she cares for her mother, many advised her to seek help from her relatives, but she declined, saying that as her mother’s daughter, she has to fulfill her duty. She said that at her age, though there are days she gets exhausted, she is happy to be able to call her mother’s name every day.

"Even though my mom is old and her memory is spotty, I still think it’s a blessing to be with her. I still have my mom with me," Hat said.

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