News Reports

Covid-19: Old people are not childish caricatures

On her way home from the supermarket, my mother passed by an old lady who was sitting on a bench, walking stick by her side. She waved my mother down to sit with her for a chit-chat. My mother said she had to get home and suggested that the old lady go home too, because it was “dangerous’’ outside. But the old lady, who wasn’t masked, just shook her head and waved her away. 

Then she told me about an old man who was queuing for Hokkien mee at the coffeeshop. There were social distancing lines of course, and he stood behind one line quietly at first – except that you could tell that standing for even five minutes was a problem for him. He moved slightly forward so that his hand could rest on the back of a chair. He breached social distancing rules but she didn’t think anyone minded. 

I know of another old lady who waylays neighbours, including me, to rant about her ungrateful adult son whom she lives with in the pre-virus days. She is a fixture in the neighbourhood. I usually nod, listen to her with one ear only, convinced that the son was probably not as bad as she had painted him out to be. I haven’t seen her recently, and I am hoping that I am right about her son. 

It’s become standard practice to howl at the elderly, the Aunties, Uncles ecetera for not staying at home. They perambulate on their wheelchairs, the men cycle on their big black bicycles and the aunties rub shoulders with each other along supermarket aisles and around wet market stalls. They seem to need their fix of the outside world and outside company. 

So we ask if they (I know I’m generalising here) understood the measures imposed in the lockdown. I can safely say most seem to understand the 1-metre apart rule. When they do gather in twos and threes, they stand or sit apart. Masked, unmasked or mask below chin. The idea of staying at home, however, seems anathema to them. 

So we ask if they have homes to go to, or what their children are up to and why the way out of the door hasn’t been barred to them. We come up with reasons for their actions like, they can’t get on with the people at home or the home is already crowded with adult children and grandchildren. Most times, I think, they get out of the home to not become a bother to others living there, and to find people of their own age to shoot the breeze with. 

Elderly folk who shop for groceries will tell you that they do not wish to inconvenience their children, who might or might not be living with them. They will say that their children are already busy with their own lives.  I would rather that this is really the case than the awful idea that they have to stay out for their own sanity or safety. 

There were 209 cases of abuse of vulnerable adults investigated last year, up from 199 in 2018 and almost double the 107 in 2016, reported The Straits Times today. About 60 per cent of the cases investigated involved a vulnerable adult aged 65 and older.

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Experts have been warning that the lockdown would lead to more domestic abuse cases, as being cooped up in a small place can fray tempers easily.  I hope they are wrong. 

My HDB block has a senior citizens’ centre at the void deck. It used to be filled with forlorn-looking seniors in wheelchairs. Despite their grim faces, I am glad that they had the company of staff or volunteers who try to cheer them with songs and simple exercises. Now, I wonder what they are doing at home, with family members who probably aren’t used to having them around all day. 

Are they enjoying the change in routine?

Perhaps, but I believe most old people are averse to changes in their life-style. My mother is in a tizzy about not being able to just hop downstairs to get whatever she needs for the kitchen. She won’t send the helper either, because she wouldn’t know the different types of meat or spices she wants. And she doesn’t want me downstairs either – because it is “dangerous’’. I calm her down by switching on YouTube for her to watch church services and Peranakan plays. Now she says her back is hurting from sitting too long…

My mother is one of those who count the amount of food stocks we have set by, and even the time when we might have to resort to tinned food (!). Over dinner, she told me why she was so paranoid. People in her generation have experienced great poverty, when a meal was just rice with some sauce. She has lived with those who have to bring up children on just bread and margarine, while she herself, as a child, had to be careful with the few cents or so of marketing money. The idea of being without enough food is terrifying to her. Grabfood and Deliveroo? They are expensive options compared to cooking at home. 

Elderly people need to know about what they need to do. But, more importantly, they need to know why, with the how fully explained as well.  Most times, they hear conversations from others which are incomplete, and snatches of information that they try to make sense of. It’s like exposing them to only the top line findings, and not even the executive summary. Or slogans without the story. Giving them the full works will take time and patience.

My mother, for example, keeps hearing what is known as “blurbs’’ which keep getting repeated on TV. Now, I know that the most worrying or most sensational quotes are always used to draw audience attention to a programme. She thinks, however, that because a doctor or someone with a fancy title says one line (repeatedly), then it must be true. It’s the cue for me to go “no lah….etc etc.” 

I’ve also seen a few well-meaning videos directed at this group of vulnerable people. Some take a humorous slant and most are in dialect or the patois that older folk are familiar with. As I said, they are well-meaning, but I can’t help but think we sometimes treat our elderly like childish caricatures to be “scared’’ into staying home with stories about how old people are more prone to the virus. I saw one clip of a young man who stuck his leg out at a “housewife’’, to illustrate the 1-metre distance. I’m not sure older people appreciate having the sole of a shoe in their face. 

I think of the past Pioneer Generation ambassadors, who went round homes to  explaining the PG benefits to their fellow elderly. That was a great move. They talk to each other as a generation who have shared memories and interests. I doubt we can do the same now, but there is something to be said for using the right people to communicate messages. 

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If not, then it is for the adult children to do so. 

I would be more incensed with young people who flout social distancing rules,  than with the elderly. That’s because change is hard. We’ll know when we get to their age. 


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© 2022 Bertha Henson

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