When our loved ones come of age: Life Hacks by Charles Assisi

The import of “old age” did not sink in until I started to tend to my mother after a recent hospitalisation. While she is back on her feet, I can see that something has changed. Her demeanour doesn’t bear the same confidence. Her gait is slower. She has lost something.

The 2017 film Victoria and Abdul explores the relationship between an ageing queen and her Indian Muslim Urdu teacher.

While it is unclear to me what that is, and she is unable to articulate it, there are others who have. I have read their works in the past, and the significance of it all is beginning to sink in now.

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Dr Atul Gawande offered context in his book, Being Mortal (2014). “Old age is a continuous series of losses,” the surgeon wrote. “Decline remains our fate. Death will come someday.” Most of us, through most of our lives, refuse to acknowledge how hard this journey really is, he adds. “Old age is not a battle. Old age is a massacre.”

This raises a fundamental question: What typifies “old age”? The way I see it now, it isn’t a number, or a medical condition.

It is the vulnerability that comes from losing a little of oneself, and then losing a little more, and then knowing that there will now be more losses than there will be gains.

I am learning just how hard this is to acknowledge, for the person themselves.

I would like to take my mother from Kochi to Mumbai to live with me, at least for a while, at least until she “recuperates”. She declined the offer. She fought back against it with an energy I hadn’t seen in her in weeks.

Desperate, I turned to Meenakshi Menon, founder of the NGO GenSxty Tribe, which works to reimagine life for seniors. Menon’s advice was simple: “Leave her alone.” The worst thing one can do to someone at this stage is take away their agency, she said.

Where does this leave us? My mother’s ecosystem is here; even I can see that. Most of her neighbours are of a similar age. They spend time together, they discuss their hopes and pains.

Looked at dispassionately, my presence was the alien element, as order began to return to her world. It breaks my heart to say this, but our worlds, which once overlapped so entirely, now have very, very little in common. Why, then, would she want to leave hers and spend her years in mine?

I know that reasoning brings little comfort to the many, many of us who are in this predicament. India has 150 million people aged 60 and above, a little more than four times the population of Australia. I would wager it has at least as many offspring scattered across its breadth and length and beyond, tearing at their hair trying to work out how to bridge this divide.

It hurts to be in the sandwich generation, caught between the needs of our nuclear families, and the care we want to give our ageing parents. It hurts to see my mother fend for herself in so many ways. It hurts to see how little she demands, and how she has instead found strength and comfort in her community, her ecosystem and her continued independence.

We both know it cannot continue like this. We know there is more change coming.

As I navigate this journey with my mother, I am realising that old age is not just a series of losses. It is a desperate struggle to stave off as many of those losses as one can.

Her strongest argument so far has been: What would I want in her place? I would want choice, dignity, and respect. In the end, perhaps what she most needs from her son now is this admission. So I have agreed to let her lead the way.

The peace I would have felt in starting my day knowing she was safe and cared for and nearby, I will now find in knowing that she has the closest thing to what she wants.

Because what we truly want — to turn back the clock, or even just to slow it down — neither she nor I can have.

(Charles Assisi is co-founder of Founding Fuel. He can be reached on [email protected])

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