My grandma is 76 (since 2-3 years) and she won’t sleep until I am home. If it is after 10 PM, she will stand near the balcony, constantly peeping to check if I have reached. But she won’t call. Somehow she has this weird mental image of me meeting with an accident because of her phone call. I found a solution. I started messaging to her when I leave from a place for home. (My Grandma is the ultra-modern woman who uses Whatsapp, Facebook, Skype and other apps). But that also means that every moment after that message counts.
This year, I read the book ‘Being Mortal’ by Dr Atul Gawande on the recommendation from a friend. Dr Atul Gawande is a best seller in the US and he’s also a celebrated doctor-writer (a doctor who’s also a writer). This book is about Old People: What happens to us when we grow old, how we respond to things, what is the science doing about us, etc.
After reading this book, I realised we live in a world of myth. We think old people worry so much just because they can’t control their emotions. We want them to practice restraint and not worry so much. We wondered if they underestimate our abilities to survive in this dark world. But actually, we are stupids. Hypertension is a symptom of old age and it is more physical than emotional. So is the feeling of not being loved or cared enough. Atul Gawande tells us why,
To maintain the same volume of blood flow through our narrowed and stiffened blood vessels, the heart has to generate increased pressure. As a result, more than half of us develop hypertension by the age of sixty-five. The heart becomes thicker-walled from having to pump against the pressure and less able to respond to the demands of exertion. The peak output of the heart, therefore, decreases steadily from the age of thirty. People become gradually less able to run as far or as fast as they used to or to climb a flight of stairs without becoming short of breath.
Apart from this, we hear a lot about old people who fall in the bathroom or fall from the stairs. Again, that’s also not their negligence. It’s how their body is functioning at that point in time. Atul Gawande says that:
The three primary risk factors for falling are poor balance, taking more than four prescription medications, and muscle weakness. Elderly people without these risk factors have a 12 percent chance of falling in a year. Those with all three risk factors have almost a 100 percent chance.
The strangest fact about old age for me was that, statistically, it is abnormal to live beyond a certain age. Ageing is not a natural process. It is unnatural. Dying early is the norm. The brain size actually shrinks when we grow old. And that’s why there’s only a little done in the field of geriatrics (medicine for old age). That’s why there are fewer answers that doctors have when a person is sick and old. Even our infrastructure is not designed for the old. Although that’s not something that is recommended, it is actually assumed that people will not live as long to use the new infrastructure or technology. That’s a hurtful truth.
A graphic novel by Roz Chast, “Can’t we talk about something more Pleasant?” is a daughter’s experience with his very old parents. This is a beautiful comic-like account of what happens when your closest people, people who have supported you all this while, need your support. This is a sweet book on real life issues of old age.
Although the book is still an American version of old age. We Indians, more or less, stick to our elders. But there’s still lack of clarity on both ends. It’s difficult to help the elders who have been fiercely independent all their lives. They want to be alone but they can’t be left alone. That’s the dilemma.
I used to sleep in my grandparents’ room since I was a baby. I had a little wheely bed below their bed which I would drag out in the night. It’s funny how I was their responsibility as a child and when I grew up, they were my responsibility. One day, my grandpa (Dadu) had a little cold and cough. It went throughout the day. There was some fest going on in the college so I had come back at 10. I was dead tired and just fell on the bed of the other room and slept. I faintly remember Dadu coming on the door asking about me, and Papa telling him that she’s tired so she has slept. Next day, I had to leave for college at 7 AM. I got ready and checked up on him. He was still sleeping, tired from the previous day and night’s coughing. Otherwise, according to his daily schedule, he would wake up and already be reading the newspaper by 7 AM. We are a family of early risers. I planted a kiss on his head and left for college.
At around 11 AM, I saw the phone. There were 3 missed calls from Mum. I called her and she told me, something had happened to Dadu and he was hospitalised. She was semi-crying, semi-worried. I rushed back. He was already on the ventilator. He had perhaps had a minor heart attack. But everything was growing wrong. He was not able to breathe properly, his body organs were too damaged. He left us early morning that night. The last words from his mouth were, “Where is Aarti? Can you call her please?”
Death is that sudden. Death can be very sudden, especially because of old age. You can convince yourself by saying that it is good to have a quick death rather than a prolonged old age full of suffering or a death by a deadly disease. But the point is, you must try and keep these old people happy and surviving.
Research says that ‘Eating alone is not very stimulating.’ Hence, these oldies who live alone or eat alone have definite problems with their health.
I have of course heard horror stories of some very wicked old people but that said, depending on your level of closeness, you must give back love and affection.
A dear friend’s Grandpa recently became my role model after he made his daughters pledge that they won’t put him on the ventilator or die in the hospital if the need arises. He had Cancer and it was the last stage. At this one stage, he asked to be taken back home. He wanted to die there peacefully. And that’s what he got.
This is very similar to one of the most endearing films, Piku. The latest film, Mukti Bhawan celebrates death in more than one way. It induces laughter, tears and the discomfort of a father-son relationship. Old age and death may not be a curse if you don’t let them be. Who won’t be lucky to get the kind of death they want?