“Both Sides, Now is a community engagement project which utilises art as a medium to encourage members of the public to speak about end-of-life issues. We don’t really enforce what’s right or what’s wrong; we just want to get a conversation started.
Some of the art that you get to experience here is visual; some of it is sound. There’s also theatre and performance involved. Art is our starting point because it provides a nice bridge to talk about a difficult topic, so it’ll feel a little less intimidating and a little less taboo, too.
I think many people in Singapore don’t like to discuss death because it feels superstitious. There’s this lingering notion that you’re tempting fate. Some don’t even want to think about death because they feel powerless to do anything about it, so why bother?
I’ve been volunteering as a facilitator for two years now. My roles have mostly been guiding and interacting with residents. After a theatre performance – which typically touches upon the subject of end of life in some way – we’ll have a little post-show conversation.
I’ll ask them how they feel about the show. Were there any characters that they resonated with? Had they thought about this topic before? If yes – or no – how have their views changed? We then go into the technicalities of how to plan for the end of life if they wish to.
I wasn’t necessarily interested in this subject until I chanced upon the project online. I read the event description and told myself, ‘Wow, I’ve never thought about this before.’ I used to act in junior college and I wanted to get involved because it utilises the arts.
At that point of time, I had also just received my acceptance into medical school. It just seemed perfect; I get to explore end of life issues, which is something I’ll have to grapple with as someone studying to be a doctor, and combine that with my love for the arts.
I’m currently in my second year as a medical student, and the three different areas that I’m interested in are mental health, sexual reproductive health and end-of-life care. Yes, all of them are stigmatised, taboo topics in Singapore.
My passion stems from the fact that these issues are not being addressed in the best way that they could be. There’s such a quiet culture around certain topics here in Singapore. My involvement in Both Sides, Now these past few years reinforces that notion.
These are legitimate problems but people get so put off by connotations around them. I mean, so many people have sex, but people don’t want to talk about sexual health. Everybody experiences the highs and lows of life, yet mental health is something that’s deemed taboo.
Everybody is going to die someday, but for some reason, we put palliative care in a box and don’t think about it. As a future medical practitioner, I hope to remind people that all of it is part of your experience as a human being, so let’s not pretend that it doesn’t happen.
My desire to specialise in palliative care also stems from a loss I personally experienced. About a month ago, my aunt passed away. She had been suffering from diabetes for quite some time. It started with one amputation, and she gradually lost both legs.
When she was warded at the same hospital that I was posted to, I visited her everyday. We were not even close, but she opened up to me a lot. She would share with me matters that at times were very personal and sensitive without any sort of barriers or worries.
I thought that was very sweet, and my experience of spending the last three months of her life with her really taught me a lot. It was a very clear demonstration of the role of people and connection in somebody’s last journey because she was so lonely.
It also taught me about the values that mattered to someone in their dying days. Sometimes my aunt got very aggressive and shouty; even at me. I was hurt initially, but I eventually understood why. She reached her snapping point when she felt like she had lost her dignity.
If she was made to wear diapers; if she was made to wear restraints because she was getting very aggressive; if someone had to feed her because her hands were tied up – that made her feel like she had lost her dignity as a human being, and that got her very upset.
After she slipped into a delirious state and lost her capacity to make logical decisions independently, we knew she would have wanted us to de-escalate her care and let her go. I’m just glad that I got to spend those very special moments with her before she passed away.
I think my experience of losing my aunt and my involvement with this project has helped make me more open-minded. I used to find it so daunting that a lot of responsibility falls on you as a medical practitioner when it comes to making final decisions.
But professional judgement is very different from personal judgement. Now, I’m more willing to see where people come from. I appreciate that there’s no black and white when it comes to end-of-life decisions. Sometimes, it’s just a lot of shades of grey.” – Caitlin O’Hara, 21
Interview by: Arman Shah
Both Sides, Now
- Public Arts Installation from 29 June – 7 July, featuring creations developed by some residents of Blk 7 Telok Blangah Crescent. The artworks, a result of workshops with the residents since March, will transform the void deck to an art installation, enlivening the space.
- Carnival from 3 – 7 July that takes place in a garden oasis, where anyone can have a picnic under the stars. Just bring a picnic mat and an open mind!