Taken from my Star column today, Fri 6th May on M17
Life is unpredictable but one thing’s for sure. We are all going to die someday. Just recently, my insurance agent was asking me about my will and I immediately thought to myself, “But that’s for grown-ups and older people!” But she was right to point out of course, that I was already grown-up and my age was irrelevant because death is something that can happen to anyone, at any time. In fact, whenever someone dies young, we are not even prepared for it. It takes us by surprise because the youth seem invincible.
They are young and agile and light up our silver screens with their million dollar smiles. Years ago, I remember feeling taken aback when I heard of Princess Diana’s demise. Surely, it was not possible. I was struck by that same feeling of disbelief when I heard on the radio in January 2008, “Heath Ledger was found dead in his New York apartment.”
The reason why I’m thinking about all this is because I visited my friend’s grandfather who is almost 100 years old. To be standing in an old folk’s home surrounded by the elderly, was the other side of the coin. Unlike the youth, health is not taken for granted. Having good eyesight, basic mobility to go to the bathroom on your own becomes a thing of pride.
I saw frail bodies, some sleeping in nappies and being fed by carers because they could not feed themselves. Many of them were existing, rather than living. They were staring blankly into space awaiting their inevitable fate. In the living room of the home, there was a semi-circle of wheelchairs in front of the TV set watching pop stars on MTV. On a closer look, they were not really watching the TV, but merely sitting in front of it.
I followed my friend to the corner of the room where “Kung Kung” was sitting. Up until last month, he was living at home with his wife, who the family all call “Po Po”. She said her husband was starting to get dementia (the most common disabling illness associated with old age according to Department of Statistics of Malaysia). He would leave kitchen appliances on, have severe mood swings and talk to himself. In the end, she was so worried for his safety that he had to be moved into an old folk’s home.
At the age of 89, Popo visits her husband at the same time every day though he cannot always recognize her. Despite the inconvenience of daily travel, she always arrives in time for his first meal. The carers pass her the food bowl because she feeds him herself, despite the fact she is almost 90.
I’m not sure if our modern marriages now are built to last the way they did in the old days. Popo was the shining example of a traditional wife who was still struggling to look after her man, despite the trying circumstances. It was a humble reminder of the vows so many starry-eyed young couples pledge to cherish their partners “in sickness and in health.” As we all know, so many marriages don’t even make it to the point of growing old together. In fact, in the Malay Mail recently, it was reported that a Muslim couple gets divorced every 15 minutes in Malaysia!
It’s one thing for people to be fickle about their life partners but what I found really saddening was to see the elderly growing old without any family or loved ones around them. Not everyone there was like ‘Kung Kung’ with a regular stream of visitors.
There was a lady who was sitting on her bed, wide-awake, just looking out the window. I asked her what it was like living in the old folks home and she said, “My husband died many years ago. I don’t want to be home alone. It’s better for me to be here.” When I asked if she had any children, she told me she had five, but they were all too busy to visit their mother and some of them lived overseas so she rarely had any visitors. It must be difficult to be growing old, filled with boredom, and feeling so alone in this world.
My visit to the home was a reminder to not take health for granted. I truly hope my parents will be able to continue to look after themselves, right into old age. Presently, they travel so much and lead such an active life that I can’t imagine them growing old.
However, growing old is a part of life and as time goes by, one’s mobility depends on one’s fitness and health, which is why exercise is so crucial. There’s no point waiting till you cannot move around to start thinking about it. My parents are not keen on exercise but I’m going to try my hardest to get them enrolled into a Tai Chi or Qi Gong class because I want them to stay with me, both physically and mentally for as long as they possibly can.