There is an old Irish belief in the Gaelic language, ‘Health is better than wealth’. How often are these words flung around and how cavalierly are they treated? The youth shrug and laugh it off. As I did in my younger days. But I feel differently now and it’s not because I am old and haggard, Au contraire! Changing circumstances have made me look at the proverb with renewed respect. Deteriorating health of near and dear ones as well as changes in my overall well-being have caused this mindset change.
Cast back a few decades and the excitement of a newborn baby, the child taking first steps, getting the first job, marriage and grandchild are what mark our milestones and we expect the happiness meter to continue unabated. However, no sooner do our kids grow up then we acquire another set of kids; our ageing parents. And while we battle our demons on how to become caregivers to people who are child-like adults, we also develop our own set of unique age-related problems.So conversations are peppered with back issues, menopause tales, bifocals or progressives, blood pressure and hair loss, with sidebars that include doctor and hospital visits and anxiety over the progenitors.
So conversations are peppered with back issues, menopause tales, bifocals or progressives, blood pressure and hair loss, with sidebars that include doctor and hospital visits and anxiety over the progenitors.
I have watched how diabetes is a silent killer, attacking the eyes for some, hearing in another accompanied by neuropathy and loss of sensation. Another killer is Parkinson’s and with increasingly brittle bones, the frequent falls mean an endless round of fractures and slow healing period with dependence on walkers and eventually wheelchairs. It is heartbreaking to watch how these folks, who were larger than life people while we were kids and young adults, suddenly become vulnerable and are unable to carry out the simplest of functions. Diapers and urinals, bedpans and sponging become the norm. And then there are heart attacks, strokes, the need for stents and physical therapy.
With the internet, today caregivers are becoming medical experts. This makes work even more difficult for doctors who are questioned at every step. In one way it is good because they need to be constantly alert but on the other hand, it can be quite annoying to have their expertise questioned at every step. The jury is still out on that one. Sometimes I feel the days of less information were better because, in our ignorance, we imagined fewer ailments and so lived in peace.
Another heart-wrenching disease and one I have been following closely is Alzheimer / dementia. It is bad enough watching our parents become a shell needing help for basic functions but to watch them forget us and forget basic activities is torturous. Ever been at a table with four dementia sufferers. It is hilarious if it were not so tragic. I heard four different languages with each one speaking to the other and people nodded along as if they understood perfectly what was being said. Epoch Elder Care in Kharadi is doing an amazing job caring for people with dementia. They are unruffled and engage their patients, managing to distract them and divert their attention while ensuring they eat, sleep, play and are always occupied. Having been a frequent visitor to the centre over the last few weeks, I am heartened to see such centres opening in India.
It could be the NRI factor, but senior homes are becoming common now. In the US, they are an acceptable alternative. In India, we have a mindset about such homes. The custom of caring for our parents is so deeply ingrained, leaving them in a home is like abandonment. In fact, these homes are more humane. As a caregiver to my father, I am not trained in how to care for him and often in my love for him, I get frustrated and yell at him. He voices his fear of my temper and also requests me to stop shouting because he is my Dad. I cannot help myself. My concern and fear of the unknown propel that impulse. And my conversations with him mainly revolve around his health. A friend pointed out the need to stop doing that and start discussing other topics.
At the Epoch care facility, I have noticed how well they take care of the seniors. They seem happier than they are living with us, mainly because they let them be. They do not mollycoddle and worry about them every single moment but yet they are vigilant and instantly react if something goes awry. I think more such homes are needed. And while the US homes are professionally run and the people working there are also caring, I find the Indian ones a notch better because they do not worry about lawsuits and their brand of showing care goes deeper. All patients are an uncle or aunty, masi or chacha and that in itself endears the caregivers to the patients.
A few days ago, I was told about a group of people getting together with a psychiatrist specialising in senior care. This group focuses on seniors who are significant others in a spousal relationship where the other spouse is handicapped, unable to function or severely ill. The group is meant to discuss issues faced by caregivers and become a support system. Such groups are commonplace in the US where they believe in analysing and dissecting everything possible. To see this starting up in India is worth applauding. This is a group of people who need such support. Often these uncomplaining husbands and wives give up on their own needs, their desire to travel, their ability to socialise etc. since they need to care for the spouse. Such support systems are good so they know they are not alone, they can vent, let out frustrations as well as fears.
In ancient India, people lived in joint families. As I get older, I see the merit of such a system. There is instant support, errands, duties and other work is distributed and shared and there is probably less anxiety. Unfortunately, petty issues can be the dampener or else the need to break away to follow a career trajectory. On paper, though, it is a great way. I think India still follows the joint family system with the boundaries being redefined. People may not live together under the same roof, but the bonds holding joint families transcend physical borders and therein lies the difference. As long as that family support continues, it will be easier dealing with ageing issues.
I am glad we have this support to deal with our ageing parents. I hope our children have it to deal with theirs. If not, thank heavens for senior homes where the definition of caring has been modified. In the meantime, stay healthy and fit because health, in reality, is our greatest wealth.