Seniors full of surprises

While many seniors I know are indeed slowing down with age, they are also turning their lives in surprising new directions.

Hearing about a 70something acquaintance who lives solo rather than depend on her devoted children, or Indian journalist Srikumar Sen, who penned his first award-winning novel last year at the age of 81, tells me that society seriously underestimates the elderly.

For the sake of this column, "elderly" will refer to people over the age of retirement, though a friend who just turned 40 recently received a standard ElderShield application from a government insurer.

In spite of our vaunted Asian tradition of respecting our elders, ageing is a traumatic experience for many.

A handful of elderly power-brokers are lionised while hundreds of others moving beyond their fifth decade are discounted by employers and their own children.

I see this terrible tendency in myself and my friends and relatives where we automatically associate reduced physical capability with diminished mental acuity.

My parents, aged 63 and 57, now need glasses to read menus in restaurants. They can no longer sustain the all-day hiking and camping holidays they enjoyed in their youth. Half a day's walking and then they turn around and head back to a comfortable hotel.

Fearing for their comfort, I now plan our excursions to the last detail, down to choosing restaurants with menus in large type and solicitously asking every hour or so whether they are hungry or thirsty or need to go to the bathroom. (Incidentally, my father has started answering calls on the landline with the words: "Residence of the dictator.")

"We're not entirely helpless, you know," my mother tells me regularly, gently, proving it last week, when she and my father returned from a 10-day trip to Japan, which I had meticulously organised with an eye to regular feedings and very short sightseeing excursions.

Within 24 hours, both were on a plane again, he to Phnom Penh, she to Ho Chi Minh, leaving behind a fridge and larder newly stocked with frozen, cooked and ready-to-eat foods. I was still struggling to unpack.

As we see our elders cope with declining vision or slowing steps, we fear for their safety and comfort and leap to do things for them that perhaps they would rather do on their own, a bit more slowly but with proud self-sufficiency.

At the age of 75, my paternal grandmother was so hard of hearing that she revved our little Maruti car in India until it sounded like a Ferrari, just to be sure the engine was running. Her children insisted she stopped driving, which was probably safer, but also led to a loss of independence that she regretted until her death, seven years later.

This was the woman who stayed with me in Singapore after surgery, while my parents went on a two-week work trip. Though she had to use a walker to get around, she dismissed the nurse I had hired and within days had taken over the kitchen, insisting on taking care of me, rather than the other way around.

Runner Joy Johnson, 86, last week ran the New York City Marathon and died a day after, possibly because of injuries suffered in the run. But it was how she wanted to go, the Wall Street Journal reported her daughter saying.

I think of an older friend's 70something mother,who prefers to take the MRT, rather than ask her children to drive her around. Or India's Turbaned Tornado, Fauja Singh, 101, who ran the Standard Chartered marathon here last year and began running only in his 80s.

Our elders are capable of so much and I fear we limit them, not just out of love but also because of selfishness.

I am immensely proud of my actively ageing parents but before I could be proud, I had to grow up a bit. You see, at some early point, I had made the assumption that in my 30s, my parents would be supporting my career and (still unborn) children, rather than having full and enriching lives of their own.

A friend of mine was equally shocked recently when, after giving birth to her first child, she found her in-laws willing to spoil the kid but unwilling to take on regular baby-sitting duties. Having retired recently, her mother-in-law had plans to travel the world instead.

While I sympathise with my friend, I also think she should be grateful for the older woman's example. It will set her free too in 30 years.

Here's to the surprising seniors who replace the fear of ageing with fun. I no longer dread receiving that ElderShield form in five years. I'm looking forward to my 40s, 50s and 60s as years when I can finally write that novel or maybe train for a marathon.


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