Wednesday June 27, 2012
Living with Ah Ma’s groans
By CORRIE TAN
A society that forgets how to care for its own – including the infirm – is one that forgets how to be human.
I NEVER want to grow old, one of my friends said to me recently. “I want to die by the time I’m 50.”
I pondered this as she put the final brushstrokes on her bleak portrait of ageing, which included Alzheimer’s and dementia. Not a pretty painting, but I told her I was willing to risk it.
Perhaps it is presumptuous of a 20something like myself to comment on something that will happen to me in four or five decades. But some Singaporeans seem to have developed a curious allergy to the state of being elderly.
Some weeks ago, The Straits Times Singapore reported on a nursing home for the elderly that will be going up in Bishan, tucked into a cluster of HDB blocks. It is one of many more that will soon be dotting Singapore as the population ages.
I did a double take when I read one of the disgruntled responses from a resident in those blocks: “The old folk will be groaning right into my home.”
I had to remind my riled-up self that the gripe of a single resident is hardly representative of an entire community; I am aware that many do not feel the same way. I have friends and family who volunteer at old folks’ homes to make life a little easier for those who cannot take care of themselves.
But a society that is forgetting how to care for its own – for its ill and infirm, and for those living at the fringes – is one that is forgetting how to be human. Even if these “forgetters” are in the minority.
For millennia, humans have formed communities for protection and survival. And this means caring for those who might be immensely difficult to care for, whether at home or in a nursing facility.
My grandmother turns 94 this year. She was diagnosed with two debilitating diseases – dementia and Parkinson’s – more than 10 years ago. They are degenerative conditions which have left her a wisp of her former feisty self.
Just over a year ago, she could still sing us snatches of her favourite Teochew songs. Now, she can no longer recognise us. She has to be fed through a tube inserted through her nose that extends into her stomach. Her soiled diapers have to be changed several times a day and she has to be bathed by someone else. She drools uncontrollably into a bib.
She also lives with my family. We have had to hire a full-time domestic helper to help to look after her.
I hear her groans of discomfort the moment I leave my room, and the minute I come home from work. When I say, “Ah Ma, kia” (Grandma, goodbye, in my minimal Teochew), or pat her wrinkled hands, she no longer responds.
I wish I had mined my grandma’s trove of personal histories before she turned that key in the lock of her mind and tossed it into the crevasses of her memory. I’ll never be able to find it again.
She’s your grandmother, you might say, so of course you can tolerate her “groaning right into (your) home”.
I think this transcends tolerance and family. It is also about love and human dignity. Regardless of age, we are someone’s son, daughter, brother, sister, mother or father. Selfishness begets selfishness, and if we keep thinking “not in my backyard”, our backyard will become a small, lonely and dangerous one.
Today, 9.3% of Singapore’s population is above the age of 65. The number of its older folk is set to double to 600,000 in under a decade and triple to nearly a million by 2030. We should not claw back at the inevitable.
I’ve always loved working with the elderly. I look forward to interviews with them because I love listening to their stories and coaxing them into talking about a Singapore – or a world – that I have never known and will never really know.
I recently interviewed several members of the Young@Heart chorus, an American musical group whose members range in age from 73 to 90. They have given uplifting performances around the world, singing everything from the Bee Gees to the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
One of them, a 77-year-old retired educator, told me: “We know we’re all going to die at some point. It’s how you live before you get there.”
I don’t think that statement applies solely to those in their golden years. We could take a leaf or two from their book.
If I should, one day, realise that my speech has left me, I hope that my children and grandchildren will be more than happy to let me groan right into their homes and love me the more for it. – The Straits Times Singapore/Asia News Network
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