Parents as children and children as parents : FIL, all of 89 and feisty as he ever was, moved in with us for a while, and life changed.
The Maintenance of Parents Act is under discussion and debate in the press right now, with opinions on ‘measuring’ filial piety, moral obligations and legal requirements. Those in the situation – parent to his or her parent – will discover that the issue surpasses rights and obligations, it is more realistically grounded in management, responsibilities, capabilities and priorities.
Looking after parents is a challenge in today’s fractured, splintered world and it may be easier in your (and their) country of birth rather than in a foreign land as there is, if nothing else, the comfort of the familiar. As in our case, if you cannot relocate to live with them and they can no longer manage on their own, they have to come to you, as they sometimes do, reluctant, unwilling (even belligerent) and within a day, everything is wrong, the weather, the food, the company, everything.
While Singapore is the easiest of places to relocate an ageing parent, bringing – and caring for – a parent is not easy as you juggle with role reversals and generational expectations.
Making them comfortable is not just a new room; the whole house is re-arranged to welcome and accommodate the new member: a re-fitted bathroom (non-slip tiles, bars to hold on to, no sharp corners, a stool that won’t slip, clear lighting), a bed of just the right height with a mattress firm enough for support and ease, dim lighting for the nights, bright lights for other times and ventilation to blow the cobwebs away (largely in the mind).
New help is sourced, interviewed, briefed, hired, welcomed, initiated, trained and introduced to the resident help, and it is a wary circling of polite smiles and unspoken tugs-of-war regarding boundaries and responsibilities.
New menus are developed for breakfast, lunch and dinner and all the snack times in between, because food-on-tap is the need of the hour, little munches, hot sips, hold the salt and spice, no tomatoes (gout), no cabbage, no aubergines, no beans, certainly no non vegetarian (which actually means yes to fish and chicken and no to red meat, but one discovers that after weeks of sulks at the table), no chili, no pepper, no garlic, no this that and the other, no rice, no bread, no dairy products, nothing cold, nothing with too much liquid and yes please to fruit and dark chocolate after every meal. A scotch wouldn’t come amiss, whenever offered, beer is for wimps and the wine is palatable only if home made.
New rules are drawn up – grandchildren are cautioned that they MUST spend some time every day with Grandpapa, never mind coursework, sport, homework, tests or mock exams and so what if he doesn’t answer or just stares (or glares) and goes right back to the Wrestling Channel; it doesn’t matter if he mumbles and you cannot understand a word he is saying when he chooses to speak.
Medical files and reports are scanned, studied, collated, organized and filed, medications counted, labeled and separated, lists made and pinned everywhere so there will be NO error in dosage or content, a visit to the general physician made, all tests done, all clear.
So that the parent, now uprooted, may find ease in the old and familiar, orchids are purchased to fill the space outside his door (he, being a lover of nature, plants and animals); so that he may not feel isolated and cut off from the outside world, he is presented a laptop with readymade Gmail and Skype accounts; so that he may find solace in the habitual, an iTouch is set up by the bedside with a variety of playlists and favourite genres – even an iPad to engage him with new and easy technology – YouTube and free calls to anyone anywhere in the world. A mobile phone with home, help, family and friends numbers on speed dial, a bell to summon assistance at any time day or night, a cane for support, diapers for incontinence, a foot massager for circulation, a wheelchair for mobility, books to read.
You would imagine a man might be appreciative, just mildly appreciative.
But the litany of grouses is never ending, the weather is too hot, humid, scratchy, itchy, are there mosquitoes, why does it rain so much ? Is there chili in the food, what is that speck of green ? You feed me too much; I am putting on weight. When are we going to Orchard Road, Bukit Timah, Adam Road, Mustafa ? The Botanical Gardens and the black swans ? Church ? Is there freedom of speech here, why can’t people say what they want ? Why so much discipline ? Where is that girl ? She is a mother in law, even my wife did not boss me like this. You should have been in the Army, does my grandson have any leadership qualities ?
On the phone to relatives he is full of woe; today’s children, harrumph, not like our country or our times, they have their own systems, their own lives, I am in solitary confinement, there is no one to talk to. His older son engages him for a half hour on Skype and he mutters about verbal diarrhea. His sister-in-law calls from the United States to chivvy and cheer and he grumbles darkly about women who cannot stop talking. He glares at emails, most of it is rubbish and irrelevant. He is suspicious of Skype, surely it is illegal ? The government will punish me for non-payment of phone calls. He wants to live in an old age home.
It is a seismic shift for the parent who must uproot and find familiarity and comfort in the new and the strange, and for the adult-child-turned-care-giver, this is a role to be accommodated within the demands of work, family, travel, children, health, home, pets, peeves and passions.
Patience, at the best of times, is a hard-won quality and it is not always easy to find nuance and meaning in old age, to be able to ponder the circle of life in a quavering voice and a trembling hand, or to remember that the generational upending is inevitable (especially with today’s longevity, healthcare and hardy genes) and this inevitability may visit us all.
It is an inevitability that must be understood by the state and the individual not merely as obligation or legislation but with a practical understanding of what it means in an era that seems to be in perpetual fast-forward mode : it requires systems, support, resources and options as well as infinite patience and good humour.
Photographs by Anita Thomas.