“Growing old isn’t for sissies,” my mentor, Maryann Smith, told me years ago, as she cared for her ailing husband in Canada.
When we met, Maryann was in her mid-seventies. She had just finished co-writing (with her daughter) an award-winning children’s book. I’ve seen her play tennis with opponents thirty years younger than her – and she beats them handily. (It helps that she played varsity tennis at Brown University.)
In fact, the only sign of aging I’ve seen in her is that her hand trembles violently. Every time she serves me tea and cookies, I fear that the teacup and saucer will fly off her hands. But her trembling hands have not gotten in the way of her active lifestyle. I love her company. Maryann is cheerful, hospitable and kind. These are amazing qualities to find in the elderly.
But it’s also true that the prospect of growing old can bring out our deepest fears. It’s not just the thought of our bodies breaking down or wrinkles running across our faces. It’s also the humiliation of dependency. “We do not like getting old because it forces us to face the fact that we are not self-sufficient and able to ‘go it alone,’” wrote an American author.
I felt that sensation creeping all over me as I observed Faizol, the 25-year-old physiotherapist from Love on Wheels, provide therapy for Madam Tai, the nonagenarian at a nursing home in Damansara Utama. Madam Tai needed help to do the simplest things we take for granted: eating, sleeping, sitting, lifting up a leg. She reminded me of a baby. Except babies grow stronger and taller with the passing of years whereas Madam Tai will grow weaker and more wizened.
Even younger people can “grow old” suddenly. Mohan, the CEO of Love on Wheels, told me that one of their clients was the family of a former senior executive at a prestigious company. The manager had a stroke in his late fifties that left him bedridden. His self-confidence shattered. He did not want his children, who were doctors, to help him walk. He cut off all his friends and colleagues. He did not join his family for meals. He refused to get out of his bedroom for five years.
His distraught family members contacted Love on Wheels to ask for a physiotherapist. When the therapist first entered the bedroom and urged him to use the walker, he snapped at her. “I’m walking when you’re around. What happens when you’re not around?” The therapist retorted, “What I’m doing with you is way better than you lying in bed and staring at the ceiling.”
The therapist from Love on Wheels kept on pushing the limits of the former executive. The first time he got out of his bedroom and walked into the dining room, the family members whooped and clapped. Within six months, he was willing to go out of house and be driven around in a car.
Growing old isn’t for sissies. Our powers and abilities fade. Physical pain grows. Problems and ailments appear in ways that no pill or therapy can cure.
Still, I saw firsthand how growing old is much more comforting in the presence of companions or even caring strangers. The bond between Faizol and Ms Tai was deeply moving. Here was a young Malay man giving physical care to an aged Chinese woman. Faizol offered the woman professional care. But more than that he offered her the gift of physical touch, gentle care and simple conversation. And sometimes, that’s enough.
Image courtesy of Flickr User Jenny Downing.
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