In January 2022, a 21-year-old PJ boy and self-proclaimed “banana” (an ethnic Chinese who cannot speak any Chinese dialect) moved to Kluang, Johor.
It wasn’t for work or education, but to take care of his grandparents. His grandmother suffers from dementia.
“On my 21st birthday (December 2020), my uncle asked if I would consider moving to Kluang to help take care of my grandmother,” says Joel Wong.
Joel had just graduated in psychology and had no plans, so he prayed about it.
Sensing God’s leading, he accepted the offer and committed to staying for a year.
From a carefree life, Joel became a caregiver and playmate
The transition was not easy. When Joel moved in, he realised he was a familiar stranger.
“My grandmother doesn’t remember me at all. She knows I’m a family member, supposedly her grandson, who lives with her, but that’s it,” he shares.
Now 81 years old, Joel’s grandma was first diagnosed with hypothyroidism in 2018 and suffered from anxiety.
When the pandemic hit, she stopped taking her medications and dementia began to set in.
Dementia is a broad term referring to degenerating cognitive abilities, which often lead to loss of memory, language and other problem-solving skills.
“I’ve gone through various stages of dementia with my grandma. For the first eight months, she went through a phase of wanting to run away and find her old house. I would have to physically stop her from leaving, resulting in her verbally lashing out at me, scolding me and calling me a terrible grandson,” he said.
The second phase was marked by episodes of depression and anxiety, where his grandma would break down often, hoard items and hide things.
And this year, she had piles and has since lost control of her bowel.
“When she has to ‘go’, she would just do it everywhere; there would be blood and faeces on the walls, floor, all sorts of places. I would have to clean up after her and at times, help shower her as well,” Joel said.
In the last several months, his grandmother has become almost like a six-year-old, playful and naughty with unpredictable mood swings.
Most of her memory is gone, and Joel’s efforts to preserve any thread of relationship with her family (recording videos, going through photos) have failed.
“So my relationship with my grandma is superficial yet deep. I would sum it up this way: I am her playground friend. She will not remember who I am or what I do, but when she sees me, hopefully, she’ll associate me with happy memories,” he shares.
For his birthday, Joel plans to walk Singapore’s Coast-to-Coast Trail in 24 hours to raise funds
For a 23-year-old, Joel has plenty of life experience serving those at the fringes of society.
After high school, he’d spent more than a month in Kunming, China, teaching English and music to underprivileged children. He then worked for two months at a centre for children with special needs before completing his studies in psychology.
When he moved to Kluang, he had no job locked in.
“I came to Kluang in January 2022 without a job, just willing to do whatever God wanted me to do. I never wanted to be a teacher. A week after my formal interview, I got the offer,” he said.
As a teacher, Joel has always encouraged his students to actively give back to society and support meaningful causes. But he also practises what he preaches.
For his birthday last year, he raised RM32,841 for Cancer Research Malaysia by cycling 400km from Kuala Lumpur to Kluang together with his family.
“This year for my birthday (19 December), I’ll be walking for 24 hours using the Coast-to-Coast Trail in Singapore this week (21-22 December) in support of the Alzheimer’s Disease Foundation Malaysia.”
He hopes to raise RM7,000 for the foundation in honour of his grandmother and many others suffering from age-related diseases.
In Malaysia, over 260,000 older adults are living with dementia.
A season of loss and gain in Kluang
Joel thought he would only stay with his grandma in Kluang for a year, but God led him to extend his time there by another year.
As the days unfolded, he witnessed how the Lord had bigger plans beyond being a caregiver to his grandmother.
“God spoke to me through the life of John the Baptist; that I am called to unite people (and churches) in Kluang together for something greater that is to come,” he said.
In the past two years, Joel struggled to find a church in Kluang. Most were Chinese-speaking and caring for his grandmother took up most of his spare time.
“This season has challenged me to actively pursue God and be more dependent on Him. When I was unable to join a faith community and thus had no avenue to serve or minister, I was challenged to seek God on my own, take the initiative to be Christlike and ‘create’ an avenue to express my love and service to God,” he explained.
In his pursuit of God and Godliness, Joel found another way to serve. Despite being an outsider, a “banana” and without a church community in Kluang, Joel became a catalyst uniting various youth ministries across different churches and denominations to work and pray together.
However, the season has not been easy.
On several occasions, he broke down from the stress and emotional fatigue of it all. Although he never thought of giving up, at times he felt deep sadness and missed his life back in KL, friends and family.
Additionally, the love relationship he was in came to an end due to geographical distance and the intense commitment of being a caregiver. It was one of his biggest losses, he says.
“I’ve lost a lot because of Kluang, but I’ve seen how God has used my losses for gain as well,” he said soberly.
Although his next steps are unknown, Joel knows God has his back
After being in Kluang for two years, Joel has finally come to the end of his season in Kluang.
It may sound strange to some, but Joel says he was “living his dream” even if it looked like a series of insignificant, strange life events.
“Many people did ask me about how this move would affect my career, but I never really felt like it was a setback. My conviction [that God was in this] helped me to stay on,” he said.
Joel is now exploring a Master’s in music therapy and the possibility of working with youth on leadership development.
“I’m open. Wherever God gives me an invitation, I will try and see,” he said with calm assurance.
His two years in Kluang have shown him the importance of living intentionally. “I had to decide if I wanted to be a Christian and live out my faith actively, or just chill,” he explained.
When he chose to step out, he saw God’s hand every step of the way: providing a job, grace and strength for the overwhelming days of caring for his grandma, enabling him to lay the foundations for stronger unity among churches in Kluang.
“If there’s something God has called you to do, just pray and then whack kau-kau (give it all you have). If He asks you to do something, confirm it will happen. God is steady, not easy.”
For more information on Joel’s birthday fundraiser and to donate, click here.