Changi Prison

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.

14 thoughts on “Changi Prison

  1. Hi Bernie,
    I’ve just read your article and do agree with you that people with dementia do go on to relive and beleive that they are still in the situation as a POW. When my mum with a good English accent developed dementia, I told the nursing staff that if she ever gets upset, just say ‘Yonkers’ or ‘The Bronxe’. I witnessed a nurse tell her this once and immediately she was distracted and said excitely ‘New York, I got lost twice there’. You see, during the depression her dad jumped ship in NY, saved money for his family to come over. Mum must have been 14 when she arrived in NY, finished her schooling,went to business college, got a job in the Chrysler Building, then back to UK with her family. These early memories as you know, are so deep, that it’s a pity more staff don’t draw on life histories, rather than medicaitons to ‘manage’ them.
    As a Behaviour Consultant with Alzheimer’s Australia I remember the staff in one home who were so angry with a new man as he kept following staff around and would fluff the bed up after they had made it. I told them to find out what he did for a job in his early years. Turned out he was a wool classer, so he was just trying to help. They bought him a sheepskin and he was happy with that. Keep up the good work.

    • Hi Keith Nice to hear from you again after so long. Yes you are right. These approaches are common sense when you think of linking with the person’s past experiences. However, what you and I think is common sense may not be all that common!

  2. A new website dedicated to Des Bettany who served during WWII and was imprisoned at Changi. This artwork of his service life before and after the Capitulation of Singapore is a range of fascinating illustrations, done sometimes with humour.
    This new website has been put together by Des’ family as a tribute and to help raise awareness of what the POWs went through, as seen through the eyes of one man, Des Bettany.
    The site can be found at
    Remember the 70th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore is on February 15th 2012.

    • Keith
      I have just had a look at the website and it is a beautiful portrait of the wrtime experiences of those who survived Changi. Thanks very much for letting us know that this website is active. It really is well worth a look as it has some terrific artwork by Des Bettany.
      Thanks again Keith.

  3. Hi again Bernie,
    I have to agree with you about the scars that war and POW experiences have been left that are always there but come to the fore front when people develop dementia. As a behaviour Consultant with across services with people with dementia, I can never get over the staff’s lack of understanding of a person’s life history and triggers that lead to ‘behaviours of concern’. Each month I’d get a call from staff members seeking assistance as there patient wouldn’t come out of room or crawled along the floors. Trigger for this was builders using nail guns!!!

    • Keith
      The triggers never go away do they? Many veterans of Vietnam live with these same issues on a daily basis but are expected to function in the world of today even though part of thier mind is stuck in responding as if the world is still Vietnam. For the older veterans with dementia the world is a mix of now and then. And they so easily trip back into it at the slightest sound, smell or sight. Sensitive staff who understand this can make a world of difference to their daily living.
      Great work Keith.

  4. Hi Bernie,
    Like you I was also amazed at the Changi POW Museum. I met with the director and CEO as my dad has had 300 images he painted as a Changi POW to keep his sanity, in his cupboard for 70 years. They gently incourage us to get them on the web and in a book, well the web has commenced and can be seen on
    I worked a a Behaviour Consultant with Alzheimers Australia for a number of years and am aware that you may not want to show men with dementia these images (PTSS). However, I did get used to asking the staff if they had building going on when male residents would barricade themselves in their rooms and crawl along the ground. They don’t use hammers anymore but nail guns. People are effected, not only those with dementia, and one chap looked after the staff by stating ‘watch out for the sniper’.
    Thanks for you moving article.

    Keith Bettany

  5. Hi Bernie – sounds like a great trip. I helped care for a man who had been a prisoner of war for 4 years, where he spent many days in solitary confinement underground. He had Alzheimer’s disease and tried many times to ‘escape’ from his room and the nursing home. He smashed a window with a chair in an endeavour to get out; hid cutlery to use as a weapon and used the wiring behind his TV to start a fire in his room. He had ‘good’ moments,but as time went on his terror moments became more and more prevelant and unfortunately was deemed too great a risk to himself and others,and had to be moved to a more appropriate Home.

  6. Hi Bernie

    My dad was in Changi for 3 and a half years with his brother. Dad was too ill to be on the Railway but my uncle certainly was. Have been involved in focus groups through the project conducted by La Trobe relating to the survivors of trauma. As with actrocities such as the Shoah the impacts are lifelong and intergenerational. The intergenerational impact should be looked at.


  7. I recently visited Vietnam and visited the war museums in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and toured the Cu Chi Tunnels. Visiting significant places such as these, Changi, Pearl Harbour etc and listening to the stories of residents has given me greater insight and a deeper understanding into some of the experiences that our elderly residents have lived through and gives greater meaning to behavioural responses that may be present.

  8. I have cared for War Veterans in different roles and places over many years including dying veterans. I also worked alongside Weary Dunlop for a while.

    On 9/11/2001 I was the spiritual/pastoral carer working in the Victorian Repatriation Outpatients Dept amongst afghani, war vet, muslim and australian patients and families … and the Repat staff. Rage and terror and hate are also part of the War Veterans story – and I was reminded of it again on that day with these emotions present in peoples’faces and reactions to the 5 minutely broadcasts on the TV … and also when I’ve borne witness to Veterans in their dying.

    We ask a lot of our soldiers and their families … lest we forget.

  9. This reminds me that many of our elderly have suffered all sorts of deprivations and disenfranchising experiences.Having worked in an ethnic specific for many years I often have to remind myself and the staff that it is not just dementia we are dealing with but PTSD as well.

  10. I haven’t cared for many personally Bernie, however I spent some personal time with Weary Dunlop and he was a wonderful man with a great philosophy on life. The stories he told could sometimes make you shudder however it was very matter of fact to him.

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