9 Life Changing Things Learned from Spending Time with the Elderly

1024 1024 Simone Heng

I have spent more time hanging around nursing homes than anyone I know of my age (Mum and Dad had us pretty late). I have observed and spoken with people nearing the end of their lives for hours. Most are simply waiting for someone they love to call or visit. This very precious but challenging time from 2014 to the middle of 2015 has taught me 9 really important things which I hope will change the way you think about the life you are living right now:

1) 90% of the things you care about now, will not matter when you leave this earth. The trappings of the ego, wealth, external validation. All of it. You will not care at all.

2) The kindest thing you can do this weekend is call, visit and spend time with an elderly person in your life. You may not know it, but they may just be waiting for you.

3) You MUST live a life you love. Take risks, explore the world, develop your mind, do a job you love, surround yourself with interesting and passionate people, travel as much as you can, be free and a little bit wild sometimes… because when the afterlife nears, you will slip peacefully on knowing you lived with a ferocity which honoured the precious gift of life you were given. Do not waste that gift meandering through routine and hoping awesomeness will find you. LIVE well now. More on my mantra for living with gusto here.

4) Have friends outside your relationship. This may seem quite a strange leap from the topic but what I can say to you is that if my mother hadn’t been independent enough to keep some girlfriends with her during her married years, she would have been emotionally screwed following my father’s death. In fact, the amazing thing about grief is that it often brings out the most compassion in the people around you. You would be surprised how many dormant friendships came back to life for her. How many acquaintances became confidantes bonded over the shared experience of widowhood. Now that my mother is no longer mobile, it is the visits from these friends (as well as her children) who break up the hours and days for her. So tend to your friendships outside your partner/spouse with care. In old age, you will need more friends than you have ever imagined.

5) Your physical appearance is very temporary. So we all say “Oh, our looks will fade,” we know it mentally but I do not think that people are actually ingesting this information during the Instagram era. It is a real thing. My mother often remarks how beautiful she once was (yes, she is a character). When Mum first got sick and I left Dubai to be with her in Perth, I was fresh from the entertainment industry, how I looked was very far up on the scale of things I cared about. Now I am back in Singapore working in the industry, sure it is still very important for work but I don’t connect my entire value with it. There is a sort of emotional displacement where I know it is something relevant for work but my value as a person is not derived from it because I know (and I have seen) it is very very temporary. In a few years it will slide further and further away from me, neither the cutting back of carbs or more kilometres run can compete with mother nature’s plan. So best to just accept that now and run into the radio sans makeup, I say.

6)Your body or your mind could become your prison. Anyone who has spent some time in a nursing home will come up with the question: “Would you rather have your mind go first or your body?” In some sad cases, like the disease my mother suffers from, you may have to relinquish both. But in the early stages of mum’s illness, when her mind was very sharp and anchored in reality but her paralysed body trapped her, she was so tortured. She wanted to be free, she wanted to just be able to go the bathroom by herself. Her restlessness kept her awake at night, so many thoughts unfollowed by actions. In contrast, one of my favourite ladies at the home looked younger than the rest, possibly just 50. She would walk around all day with her ponytail swinging about, she would go to the rose garden and smell the roses. She looked like someone who worked there, not a resident of the home itself. On subsequent trips back to Perth however,  I discovered she wasn’t allowed out beyond the gates anymore as she had gotten lost one day. She suffers from severe and aggressive Alzeihmers, despite her young appearance, her short term memory worsens by the day. On my most recent visit, she has cut off that youthful ponytail and sits and watches people walk by. Just be prepared that everything you think now about how you function could be turned on its head, the most corporeal of people could be forced to become the most cerebral and vice versa.

7) Learn to handle embarrassment now because age hands you too many indignities to count. Are you a person that winces at the sound of the word “poo”? If you fall over in front of people do you die of embarrassment inside for a week after? Let me tell you, even for me, who has a very high threshold for handling embarrassing situations, I could never have imagined the indignity that old age hands you. I still remember walking into the nursing home and seeing my Mum being put into a nappy for the first time. Two nurses hold her up to a wall. She grabs a horizontal pole bar which is bolted to the wall with both hands. The nurses on either side hold onto her arms with one of their hands while the other hand pulls the adult diapers up onto her behind. Her leg muscles had completely atrophied by this point, her legs were like toothpicks. Her footing unstable due to her left hand side being paralysed, she wobbled like a macabre ballerina doing barre exercises. They wiped her down with wet wipes, I cried. Imagine seeing someone who was the strongest person you even knew, who ran a household with fear, now reduced to this. It was like watching the new Theon Greyjoy (post torture by Ramsay Bolton) except you are directly related to him. These indignities broke my mother almost. If we could begin to open our youthful eyes to the indignities of age more often, be aware of the elderly in our community or those who are dependent on others to function in their daily lives, the more comfortable we are with these indignities, the less of a shock it will come…when it does.

8)People who are dominant may become more so, people who are submissive may retreat more. If you are lucky to have one of those mothers that did not like to trouble people for anything (mine was definitely not one of those), in her old age, she may become one of those grandmothers who becomes more reserved and more quiet. This becomes an issue when the older person becomes incapacitated, they may shy away from asking for basic necessities like going to the toilet or asking for a glass of water. If the person was impatient, irritable and demanding, becoming an invalid may actually heighten these characteristics and the one under fire will be the primary care giver or those of you closest to them. It is invaluable keeping this top of mind because it allows you to manage your emotions if you are ever on the receiving end.

9) Cherish your body. Contrary to point 5), where I was reminding us that our external is but a temporary shell, I cannot stress the importance of taking care of the internal (I know you heard this all before too). My Mum looked great on the outside, she was never overweight, she had a lot of energy and was an active person. But inside she not only carried a gene for a rare hereditary stroke condition (this couldn’t be helped) but she also had diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. She didn’t take care of the inside, and those factors were like adding fuel on fire. I grew up in a house where you could eat cake for breakfast if you liked, there was no nutritional restrictions, we were raised to believe that you eat for pleasure and that is all. My sister once took my Mum to the hospital to get her tummy pumped for roasted almonds.  My mother had laid in bed and watched TV and finished an entire coffee jar full of the things. I actually have the entertainment industry to thank for making me conscious about my diet and eating nutritious meals. I exercise. You should too. Since my father died of cancer, I pay for the very expensive full body health screenings every six months to ensure I am top-to-toe healthy. Do it, please, just cherish this body which can sail us through the adventure which is life, if the ship is broken we ain’t going nowhere.