Solo traveller + Storyteller

Travelling With Grandma: A True Story About Alzheimer’s, Family & Getting Lost In China

3:00 AM

Knocks on the door at 3:00AM are always bad news.

It was the softest, steadiest knock on my parents’ room next door but enough to jolt me awake from deep sleep. It was much-needed sleep too. I had spent a stressful week taking my 90-year-old grandfather, Alzheimer-inflicted grandmother, differently-abled aunt and my parents on a family holiday around Xiamen, China.

Playing tour guide and trying to ensure everyone had a good time had sucked the life out of every cell in my body. Between managing Kong Kong’s (grandpa) weak legs, my aunt’s tortoise-slow pace, and keeping a close eye on Ah Ma (grandma), I was exhausted.

I didn’t realise how tricky it would be to travelling with an Alzheimer’s patient. Ah Ma’s dementia is bad, her legs are strong but her mind is not. We took turns holding her hand to ensure she doesn’t mindlessly wander off on her own or go missing in the throngs of the crowd. We even bought her a shockingly bright purple hat that helped us to spot her from the crowd. 

7 days, 3 towns, 2 ferry rides, and many train rides later, we were finally on our last night in China. I had just fallen asleep with relief that our family trip had ended safely when that eerie knock came at 3:00AM.

Knock. Knock.

It was a steady, calm knock indicating no urgency.

“Beng,” Kong Kong’s deep voice calmly called my dad’s name.

“Mother is missing.”

Dad’s door swung open; I jumped out of bed.

My 87-year-old grandmother who has Alzheimer’s has gone missing in China.

*****

Travelling with Alzheimer's patient in China

My Ah Ma

I’ve never understood why Kong Kong always sleep with the lights on. Now I know – he wakes up periodically to check if his wife is still in bed. Back home, she would often wake up at odd hours of the night roaming the house in search of her mother. I always tell her that Ah Chor (great grandma) is back in their hometown of Kuala Selangor.

Ah Ma doesn’t know that Kuala Selangor is code for heaven.

*****

3:06 AM

Ah Ma had very quietly unlocked the door and sneaked out of the guesthouse whilst we were all fast asleep.

Our family-run guesthouse was at the far end of Zeng Cuo An village. The empty streets outside is a maze of dimly lit roads and alleyways. If you manage to get out of the maze, you’ll arrive at the main road that stretches for miles and miles to the city. An overhead bridge connects the village to the long sandy coastline. The sea is dark, cold and dangerous. 

Ah Ma could be anywhere. Who knows when someone would find this lost old woman wandering on her own? And if they do, Ah Ma would not be able to give the name of our guesthouse. She had no identification on her body as she refused to wear the ID tags we made for her. She thinks she lives here. Does she even know that she is in China?! Would we need to delay our flight? Will the Malaysian Embassy help us?

A million questions crossed my mind and in that time Dad had already dashed out to run after Ah Ma, but in which direction I do not know.

It was anyone’s guess how long she had been out there on her own. It’s barely 10 degrees outside and she is only wearing a purple sweater and thin pyjama pants. She must be freezing.

Kong Kong sat at the stairwell next to the door Ah Ma walked out from. I grabbed a coat for him to keep warm. He was worried sick, we all are. Under his breath, he prayed for Guan Yin Ma (Goddess of Mercy) to bring Ah Ma back safe.

“AH MA! AH MA!” I ran the streets shouting her name. Mom followed behind me. Dad had already disappeared in the dark.

*****

Travelling with Alzheimer's patient in China

Lived with her all my life but this was the first time I held her hand

I had been excited about this trip for a while, it was a special trip to take Kong Kong to China to visit his grandfather’s village, perhaps for the last time. But three weeks before we left for this trip, I had a big argument with a relative in front of the whole family. To make matters worse, it was on the fourth day of Chinese New Year.

The relative insisted that I bring Ah Ma with us on our trip as no one else was able to care for her. I insisted otherwise; taking an Alzheimer’s patient with a history of getting lost on an oversea’s trip did not seem like a smart decision. More than that I could not understand why we as caregivers were not allowed a break.  

It was an argument that broke my heart and Kong Kong’s too. He was looking forward at the prospect of visiting his grandfather’s village that he had lost touch with, but he wanted to keep peace within the family. He offered to stay home and take care of Ah Ma while my parents and I go on the trip, but that would have defeated the whole purpose of the trip. 

*****

Travelling with Alzheimer's patient in China

Dad helps Ah Ma to sit down for a breather while Kong Kong struggles with his walking stick

3:20 AM

There was not a single soul in sight. In the day, Zeng Cuo An village is a bustling tourist market; at night, it’s a ghost town. I wandered aimlessly in the maze of streets, looking for Ah Ma’s shadows, a passer by’s shadow, anybody’s shadow really.

In the distance, I spotted a shop lot with its grilled gate slightly open. White light streaming out of the gap and the quiet chatter of a few men looked like hope.

I rapped on the gate and the men immediately fell silent. A few minutes passed before one man opened the gate and the sudden flood of light blinded my eyes. There were about three, four men seated around an oddly empty table, they stared at me with unwelcoming eyes.

“I’m sorry. Did you see an old woman walking around on her own? She’s my grandma and she has Alzheimer’s. Please tell me you saw her?”
“No,” he immediately shut the gate in my face.

A few blocks away, I found the tourist police station and was so relieved that it was 24/7. Surely the police could help?

A lone uniformed policewoman was watching a movie on her phone, choosing to ignore the CCTV footage playing out in front of her.

“You should have taken better care of your grandmother!” she immediately scolded me. “You lost her, it is your responsibility to find her.”
“We are looking for her but we need help, please,” I pleaded. “We are from overseas, we don’t know the streets, please help us.”
“There is no one else here on duty, I cannot help you. I am alone, I am busy,” she continued with her movie.
“Please,” I pleaded. I pointed to the CCTV, “Can’t you do anything?”
“This CCTV recording is from this morning, there is nothing I can do,” she shooed me away.
“Please, I begged. “Is there someone in the main police station that you can call to help search for my grandma?”
“NO.”
“Please…”

I slammed the doors and ran away with shock and anger in search of someone more helpful. The more time we waste, the further Ah Ma would go. I ran and I ran, but all I saw was an old man collecting recycled cardboards, even he did not see anything.

Out of hope, I ran back to the tourist police station ready to kneel and beg for help but I was shocked at the extent this policewoman had gone to avoid doing her job. She had shut down the police station. The lights were off, the doors were chained and she was gone. We were on our own.

*****

Xiamen city, China

Throughout the trip, Ah Ma had been surprisingly obedient in following us sightseeing. Despite being in an unfamiliar environment, she had no qualms and no complaints which made the trip much easier. One day en route to Gulang Yu Island via ferry, we lost our luggage, got separated, and when reunited, had trouble finding our way to the hotel. It was such a stressful day that we forgot to factor in a toilet break. Just as we checked in at the hotel and sat down for tea, Ah Ma could not hold it in anymore and soiled her pants.

*****

3:54 AM

Dad returned to the guesthouse face red and panting. He saw me fiddling with my phone, trying to call the Xiamen Police Station for help. He saw Kong Kong seated with his arms around himself and auntie sitting quietly beside him. Dad couldn’t sit and wait, he dashed out again to look for grandma.

“I locked the door,” Kong Kong said. “I always wake up at the slightest noise, she must have been careful to open the door very quietly not to wake me up.”

I wanted to tell him not to blame himself, that it wasn’t his fault. I almost cried when my call to the Xiamen Police Station went through. They calmly said they would send some men to us as soon as possible.

*****

Relationship goals

Travelling with an Alzheimer’s patient was tricky, but even in her muddled memory Ah Ma provided us with joy. As she dutifully followed us on tours to An Xi, Tu Lou, Xiamen city – all places we were visiting for the very first time – Ah Ma pulled from her vault memories stories of herself growing up in these foreign places.  

Kong Kong would correct her in his harsh way, telling her that she is imagining this nostalgia. I always catch a little sad sigh in his eyes when he watches his wife’s memories fading away from him. “You grew up in Indonesia and Malaysia!” Kong Kong scolded Ah Ma. Ever the fiesty woman, she would answer back and they would start bickering like the old, adorable couple that they are.  

*****

4:14 AM

“AH MA!”

Out of nowhere, Ah Ma very casually entered the doors and walked into our conversation. The room was brewing with worry and she strolled in as if she had just left for the toilet five minutes ago.  

“Ah Ma! Where did you go?” I hugged her for the first time in our lives. I felt her thin arms curled itself around the small of my back. She looked dazed and confused, her eyes were hazy, her body was very cold.

I was never one to believe miracles, but perhaps Guan Yin Ma heard Kong Kong’s call for help. How else did could Ah Ma have found her way back just like that?

Kong Kong didn’t hug Ah Ma, old Chinese men do not show physical affection. But his face softened and I see a boulder lifted off his shoulders. He demanded to know where she went.

Ah Ma felt the worry in our voices and our faces. She told a chilling story about being cornered by a group of men who would not let her go. I thought of the suspicious men in the shop lot, was it them or was it her Alzheimer’s? It doesn’t matter now, as long as we have her back home safe.

Two policemen on superbikes arrived, I thanked them and assured them that we are reunited. 

*****

Travelling with Alzheimer's patient in China

Walking through the market on our first night in Zeng Cuo An.

“Have you seen, Mei?” Ah Ma would sometimes ask me when she has one of her episodes.
“Ah Ma, it’s me. I am Mei,” I always remind her.
“No, not you. The small girl, Mei, the baby who lives here.”
“Ah Ma, I am Mei Mei. I’ve grown up.”

*****

4:30AM

Ah Ma and Kong Kong warmed up with a hot cup of coffee and some biscuits. We made her throw on extra layers of shirt and pants to keep warm.

By now, Ah Ma had forgotten that she had spent the last hour and a half lost on the streets, blissfully unaware that her family had been frantically searching for her. She crawled into bed and quickly dozed off.

We quietly left their room with the lights on and retired to our own rooms.

4:43AM

Knocks on the door at 4:40AM are always bad news.

Knock. Knock.

“Mommy, can I sleep with you? I locked myself out of my room.” 

Travelling with Alzheimer's patient in China

Read how China broke me: 

The Truth is, I Didn’t Love Travelling China
Dear China, I Am Sick And Tired Of Travelling

Or, read more stories like this:

A Very Intense Family Trip: Stuck In A Van For 6 Days
Swimming With Humpback Whales In Tonga Will Blow Your Mind 

_________________
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Travelling with my grandma: A true story about Alzheimer's, family, and getting lost in China

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