Ageing with dignity

Grandma [seated] with her daughters
in a formal studio photo
Last weekend, I met a family friend who knew that we recently celebrated grandma’s 99th birthday.  She was looking forward to grandma’s 100th birthday party next year and said that even if she was not invited, she will still come.  I assured her that she’s our guest because just a day ago, my cousin called from Sydney to say that a group of his friends were ready to fly here for the celebration.

Cousin Malcolm’s Aussie friends feel that a 100th birthday is so rare that they must be part of it.  He reminded me that we should work on the event at least six months ahead and to start sourcing for a venue, organize the guest list and think about how we can make it a grand celebration.  This reminded me of the privilege I had to dress grandma up for her recent birthday party.

With the help of the maid, I changed grandma’s clothes, powdered her face and put on her pearl accessories.  At 99, grandma’s mental health had deteriorated so much that there are days when she can hardly recognize any one.  That was one such day and as I kept up my one-sided chat with her, she gently smiled and cooperated as best as she could.  It was a very special time for me and before I presented grandma to the others, I gave her a warm hug and felt a sad rush of emotion because she could no longer reciprocate my hug.

Grandma on her 99th birthday
celebrated on 28 May 2011
For almost 20 years grandma lived with us in Johor Baru and our family planned our lives around her as she gradually aged and needed more attention.  Because my parents are also advancing in age, my aunts in Kuala Lumpur took over as grandma’s primary carers. 

On 30 June, on the last train out from Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, I met a Malaysian working in Singapore who was going to Kuala Lumpur to be with her aged mother.  This was her weekend routine because she wanted to relieve her siblings who care for their mother during weekdays.  As we talked about the commitment to care for our elderly, we agreed that it’s common for siblings to have different attitudes towards the elderly just as in the proverb, Dalam setandan pisang, tak semua buahnya matang secara serentak [“Not all bananas in a comb ripe at the same time” meaning people can be different even though they are from the same family.]

This proverb was painfully brought to mind again on 13 July when I received feedback from a reader, responding to my article, “Painful visits to the photo studio,” published on this page on 16 May 2011.  The reader said she too has family photos like ours, with her sisters and only brother, smiling happily into the camera and ended the message with her best wishes and hopes that we never encounter the likes of her brother in our family.  That’s because their brother and his wife drove their father out of their home and she saw their father spend the last four years of his life, sad and disillusioned with his son.

Family photo taken on badminton court at No. 154
Jalan Ngee Heng in 60's; Peggy is seated on the
floor [3rd from Right], restless as usual
Incidentally that day was also my brother’s birthday and our family was together, having our usual dinner celebration.  As we were sharing family joy and unity, I had sobering thoughts about families who are struggling with issues on their elderly care and being locked in legal fights.  It made me wonder if these people realise that they too will eventually age and their children are learning from their example to forsake their elders and create hostility among siblings for a larger chunk of money. 

It’s ironical that filial piety is practiced in our Asian culture and the younger generation makes it a priority to pay respects to their elders at each celebration of Hari Raya, Deepavali and Chinese New Year.  Also in Asian society, the birth of a son is more important because they carry on the family name.  But very often the sons neglect their aging parents because they are simply selfish or are under pressure to please their wives.

Peggy presenting grandma with birthday gift
of her favourite face powder
Granted that most modern women have to juggle fulltime careers and families and may not have energy to manage the elderly but when children and grandparents live together, they mutually benefit each other.  Youngsters learn to be patient and helpful and learn from the elders’ rich experience while the elderly can age with dignity. 

Before grandma’s gradual mental deterioration, she had a vivid memory that rivaled any electronic database and over the years, she shared with me, many snippets of family history in Johor Baru and insights into the hard life during World War II and the Japanese Occupation.  My memories and experiences from living with her at Jalan Ngee Heng as a child and when she was with us in her twilight years are so precious now.  This valuable info is safely filed away in my heart and mind and I can draw on this rich resource to add more colour and detail into my Johor stories.

I’m glad my parents showed by example that we ought to love and cherish our elders and now showing care and compassion comes naturally to my siblings and I.  It may cost a little more time, effort and even sleep and money, but it matters that our elders are not cast aside to die in indignity.  

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 26 July 2011

Glad to share some comments I received:

Bryan said:  An exemplary article on elders - true this is how they are treated, and I like the Malay proverb!

Rose said:  Your article is so touching! I hope readers who are not doing their part to care for the elderly will be moved.  Siblings who are not doing this duty and not to simply "wash their hands" of their responsibility.  The carers do need support and a break [respite] every now and then.

Malcolm said:  A most penetrating and poignant article!! You should have written this 20+ years ago but then again, it is never too late.  Hopefully, your honest statements will not go unheeded but there is a wise saying "....leopards do not change their spots"?

/pl

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