Aging gracefully

Extra-large buttons with clear numbers
on telephone
The art of aging gracefully

Chinese New Year is a time for traditions.  You will think of home – spring cleaning and decorating, a menu of auspicious food but most of all, you will be making arrangements for that annual trip home for the Reunion Dinner.  As you book your travel tickets or plan your route by road, the elderly are eagerly anticipating the arrival of children and grand-children, bearing gifts and festive goodies, and to sharing timeless traditions with wonderful family bonding.

While chatting with my favourite lor ark or Teochew braised duck seller, he told me that it’s a tradition he is keeping because his parents are old and there’s nothing that can replicate the vibrant festive joy in his hometown.  He said Muar is not far off and in spite of the heavy traffic and his business commitments, it’s an annual trip he will not miss.  I share his heartwarming sentiments and can imagine the joy and excitement when his family reunites over a sumptuous feast that probably also includes a tasty braised duck!

Even as we have grown older with the passing of another year, many of our elderly have become more frail and dependent.  When we cheered “Happy New Year 2012”, I realize that my grandma has in fact, turned 100 years old because she was born in 1912.  While her “bad days” are comparatively more than her “good days” now, she remains cheerful, is still mobile with the help of a walker frame and can eat soft food by herself. 

Such a ripe old age certainly calls for a celebration and my cousins and I are planning grandma’s 100th birthday party to celebrate her life and to thank everyone who will be coming to celebrate with her this May.  This Centenary celebration is very special but to me every day is a celebration because it’s a bonus to still have her with us.  Our elders are gradually deteriorating physically and mentally, and each day calls for an extra portion of patience as we adjust to their needs and do all we can to make them comfortable.

A towel to remind mum to clean her dentures!

Progressively diminishing abilities comes with advancing age and this condition requires much sensitivity and lots of common sense on our part.  For instance, instead of bringing Seremban siew pau, a popular baked dumpling as buah tangan or gift, to the elderly, the wiser choice could be a fluffy cake instead.  It’s simply common sense to know that their almost toothless mouths can better appreciate the soft cake rather than baked pau!

Speaking of teeth, an aunt told me that her mother recently agreed to have dentures made so that she can enjoy her food better.  When she asked her mother if she cleans her dentures regularly, her mother replied, “Yes” but on closer questioning, my aunt discovered that her mother was just brushing her teeth as usual.  So my aunt gave her mother an explicit step-by-step tutorial on how to care for dentures and left a towel on the table with the words, “MUM’S DENTURES” written on it, as a reminder for her mother to always remove her dentures for cleaning!

My aunt also discovered that may be due to their diminishing ear-eye and hand coordination, her parents have difficulty in making phone calls.  Very often, they fail to make calls successfully probably because the keypad numbers on their telephone are no longer clear to them.  So my aunt and her sisters went in search of a suitable telephone and finally bought one that has such gigantic buttons, painted with large, bold numbers, that one can’t possibly miss pressing the right numbers!

Mobile phone with gigantic buttons
on keypad that also light up!
An uncle who just turned 81, showed me his new mobile phone recently, saying “Look what my son gave me for Christmas,” while demonstrating how it can also light up.  I was both touched and amused to see the extra-large digits on the sleek keypad because this echoes what my aunt did for her parents.  He asked me to check if my number was programmed in and as I navigated my way through the new phone, I thought it’s very commendable that he’s mobile phone savvy.  And yes, my telephone number is in.

Coping with and accepting their weakening condition takes time both for the elderly and their carers but with sensitive handling, gentle reasoning and strong family support, our elderly not only will come to terms with it but some even joke about it.  

I fondly remember my grandma’s strong sense of humour because she often used a Cantonese rhyme to describe herself: “Ngan yau moong, yee yau loong,” literally meaning, “Eyes are blur, ears are deaf.”  Acknowledging her own limitations, she aged gracefully by learning to enjoy our care and attention, and living out her twilight years with love and dignity.

Just as in all festivals, the Chinese New Year is an ideal time for family reunions and being with our elderly relatives.  It’s probably the only time of year you can spare for a home visit and one which the elderly have been looking forward to all year long.  So make more memories as you join in the family traditions because the reality is, this time next year, our elders may no longer be with us.  Happy Chinese New Year!

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 3 February 2012

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