Are you afraid of growing old? I am.
Now that I’m back in the neighbourhood I grew up in, I see the formerly hearty coffeeshop owner silenced and in a wheelchair after a heart attack. I see a gregarious grassroots leader without a foot because it had to be amputated because of diabetes. I see formerly sturdy men hunched over a walking stick ambling somewhat aimlessly at all hours of the day.
Even the well-off elderly, dispatched by the family members to the elderly day care centre nearby, look grim, either staring at the wall or each other when the social workers or volunteers aren’t conducting a singing session or a game.
It’s scary, even if ageing is a natural part of life. You start realizing your mortality when your eyesight starts failing and you get strange aches and pains in various parts of your body. And when you are no longer as quick to grasp things as before and, worse, you’re getting deaf. It is enough to make anyone depressed.
I have always wondered at the way older people are portrayed in the media. They are either extremely sick or terribly healthy. Or dead. We are assailed with messages to eat right and exercise more and are presented with picture-perfect grinning old folk who run marathons. On the other hand, we are told about the travails of the elderly poor, who kill themselves out of loneliness or some other trauma.
Nobody really talks about the people in-between or the “young elderly’’, to give advice on how to grow old gracefully and how to accept that we might never be able to do the things we used to do, at least not as fast and as efficiently as before.
I notice two ways people react in the face of ageing.
There’s a group which will make much of growing old, complaining and exaggerating their “defects’’ in the hope of eliciting sympathy. The other group will fight against nature and insist that they are still as energetic as before and even attempt to demonstrate their youth – to the amusement of younger people, or to their horror.
What is the balance that should be struck? How do you cope with realizing that you are hard of hearing and that young people shy away from you because it’s just so difficult to talk to you? How to acknowledge that what other people say about you being “slow’’ is really true? What sort of feelings are the “right’’ feelings when you realize you need to sit down or lie down when other people are bustling all round you?
Nobody really prepares you for this stage of life. (Instead, you’re told how to die a good death!) Sure, we try to meet the elderly’s outward needs, like making sure a hospital bed is always available, the CPF retirement sum is adequate and social workers are on hand. There’s the Pioneer Generation package of generous discounts and the Silver Support scheme which helps the elderly poor financially. We’ve become much better at respecting the elderly, giving up our train or bus seats for them – so much so that it has become a societal trait!
But we seem to have missed a step – on adapting our minds to acknowledge that we’re ageing (as individuals) and have the capacity to cope with the changes that come with it.
These days, I think about growing old more often. It might have to do with living with my mother who insists that she is as young and as strong as before and gets upset when she realizes that she isn’t. Her laments are loud and long. Yet I would think my mother is a wonderful advertisement for growing old gracefully. She dresses well, manicured and pedicured and never leaves home without lipstick on. We can pass off as sisters rather than mother and daughter.
But underneath the shiny facade is a resentment about ageing, which I assume is the case with most of the elderly.
Nobody really wants to grow old or be acknowledged as elderly. Once, when a younger woman gave up her MRT seat for me, I told myself it was time to dye the grey in my hair. Should I? Why is so hard for me to accept that my hair will turn grey or even fall out?
Then over the weekend at a school alumni re-union, I met up with my ex-classmates of 37 years ago. We joked about how much older we looked especially when compared to the current students. We tried to pass ourselves off as 10 years younger. It was all in good fun of course.
There was one ex-classmate who turned up with a full head of beautiful silver hair. I asked if the hair had been bleached or coloured and was told it was natural. She went through some lengthy hair treatment to make sure that the grey would eventually even out, rather than come out in patches on the head.
I thought to myself that that this is one way to grow old gracefully. Nature will take its course – and we can also help it along. We can’t all be marathon runners and we are not yet on the verge of death.
We need to find a way to reconcile ourselves with getting old. Or, maybe, it’s just me.