We all know this celebrity chef for being outspoken and gregarious. Datuk Redzuawan Ismail or Chef Wan as he is fondly known, is a livewire. He’s passionate not only about food but social issues and uses his social media platform – he has half a million followers on Instagram – to speak his mind and share his views.
But now, the 60-year-old chef has donned another hat – he’s become an advocate for the elderly, speaking out against elder abuse and neglect.
As the ambassador for the Prevent Elder Abuse and Neglect Initiative of the Universiti Malaya’s Department of Social and Preventative Medicine, Chef Wan is calling on Malaysians to “be dutiful sons and daughters” and care for the welfare of the elderly.
“You know, a mother can take care of 10 children but the same 10 children find it hard caring for their one mother.
“That is what society has become. We read about cases of abuse more and more in the media and it’s just awful. We are so busy with our own lives we neglect our duty to look after our parents.
“The truth is, our parents don’t expect much … a little time, respect, compassion, empathy and love. That’s all. Are we too busy for even that? I often tegur (admonish) my own children and grandchildren if they neglect to visit or call their grandmother (or great grandmother),” he shares.
Caring for the elderly is a subject that’s very close to his heart, Chef Wan explains. In fact, he jokes, he has been a caregiver to the elderly since he was a 10-year-old helping to care for his aged grandmother.
“I jumped at the opportunity to be the ambassador, really. First of all, I sincerely enjoy the company of older people.
“I think it was because of my upbringing. As the oldest of seven siblings, I had to help my mother with chores in the kitchen as well as in caring for my younger siblings.
“I also spent a lot of time with my grandmother in the kitchen. In those days, if I didn’t help, there would be no dinner. It was as simple as that.
“But I enjoyed it. All this muscle (flexing his biceps) comes from years of giling-giling cili (grinding chilli) as a child.
“But I enjoyed being with my grandmother and mother and all the makcik-makcik (old aunties) in the kampung. In return, they gave me a lot of love and were kind to me,” he explains.
Since his mother, Noraini Abdullah (whom he lovingly calls Cik Ani) was diagnosed with dementia a year-and-a-half ago, Chef Wan has become the primary caregiver for the 87-year-old, who he describes as “a pillar” in his life.
“It’s not easy. Sometimes she is present and other times, she’s in a world of her own. She gets lost and it’s hard to see her like that or to imagine that one day, she will not be there anymore. I know I can’t have her forever and so I have to show her my devotion and love for her now,” he says.
As he opens up about his mother, Chef Wan chokes up. Cik Ani was born and bred in Singapore, but left her home and converted to Islam to marry Chef Wan’s father Ismail Md Nor.
“She went through a lot. As a convert, people would accuse her of cooking her food with pork lard and they would convince others not to buy her food. Can you imagine? But she still never said a bad word about anyone,” he says, the pride in his mother evident in his voice.
Noraini, he says, never had an easy life. She had to juggle bringing up seven children while supplementing the family income by selling food.
“I really do not know how she did it all. She is remarkable. My father was in the Air Force and would only be home for two weeks at a stretch.
“He didn’t earn much, only RM160 a month and so my mother had to sell nasi lemak and kuih to support us.
“But she made sure we had food waiting for us when we came home from school, our clothes washed and folded. We were well taken care of and she did all that without complaining.
“It’s her strength that has inspired me. And now that she’s not well, it’s my turn to care for her. It’s the least I can do,” he says.
Chef Wan isn’t about to take his role as ambassador lightly. He intends to speak out against elder abuse and neglect as much as he can. And, so should everyone, he says.
“I’ve led a very active life … I’m bubbly and always on the move. I never imagined that I’d be 60 and suffering from backaches and gastritis. But isn’t that the truth … we will all be old. So this issue of ageing and the elderly … it’s everyone’s problem.
“Everyone should stand up and talk about elder abuse. We need to wake society up and let them know that this is happening, and it is not acceptable. We need to speak to people about caring for the elderly. We need to instil values in our young. If we all play our role in respecting and caring for our elderly, we can reduce cases of elder abuse,” he says.