I have just visited Changi Prison Museum and Chapel in Singapore. I am here for four days to conduct a Dementia Care Mapping course with Virginia Moore in the Lions Home for Elders.
The museum is a very moving chronicle of the tragedy of 1942-1945 in Singapore under the Japanese. I am reminded of the several POWs I have had the privilege to talk to in my time as a psychologist working with people living in nursing homes and hostels in Victoria, Australia., many of whom had dementia and were reliving the horrors of those 3 1/2 years in prison.
Changi was not the only POW camp. 16,000 died on the Thai-Burma railway. Many civilians died in the villages of Singapore and beyond. Stories of heroism and immense suffering in the face of unthinkable cruelty made me numb with the barbarity of some of the things that were done to people. But it still happens if you look at the newspapers and TV. People can be both cruel and wonderful to each other. I was viewing it for a moment in my life but the soldiers and civilians who lived through it endured it for 3 1/2 years not knowing if it would end.
Not all Japanese were cruel. There is the story of the Japanese man who was in Changi prison for spying before the war and was released when the Japanese overtook Singapore, to take up a position with the military government in charge of welfare. He ensured many survived with permits and passes that he did not have to give. Thirty years after the war he was welcomed back by the people who remembered his goodness. There are photographs of two unnamed young Japanese soldiers who gave Vitamin B tablets to soldiers.
Weary Dunlop has demonstrated the way to build bonds of relationship that can overcome fearful anger and resentment. We had the pleasure of hosting a Japanese student a couple of years ago and it was a happy sharing of stories and perspectives that I am sure will build interest and positivity into the future.
I wonder from the safety of my room how I would cope. What would I do? Would I be able to withstand the daily punishments and deprivation. I guess those men and women must have asked themselves similar questions. They were ordinary people much like you and me, asked to do extraordinary things under extraordinary circumstances.
I can only say thanks for the example and the memory of their endurance.
I think of them today and remember the men and women I have come across who have suffered not just physically but now in the course of the progress of dementia find themselves mixing up present and past. Unfortunately their past contains unpleasant memories that confuse and hurt them, causing them to be fearful or angry or afraid. It calls on all my empathy and compassion to try to understand what it must be like to live in that reality again. For many their bodies now look and feel like they did but now due to ageing and the wasting of inactivity rather than starvation and malnutrition. The very weight loss is enough to convince their brains that now is then.
Tell me about your experiences caring for people who have endured the punishments of being a POW.