A nuclear family sans elders, blissful ignorance about ageing and elders, rude awakenings

While I continue mulling about ageing, here’s a confession about my blissful ignorance about ageing and dying as I grew up in a nuclear family, just my parents and I, and then moved over to my own nuclear family with my parents nearby. Truth is, right till I was almost forty years old, I never spared a deep-enough thought towards ageing or death. Not that I imagined that people lived forever. I knew people died, I even knew they got frail and dependent and fell ill, often more so if they were older, but I never thought of how it impacted them or their families and all that.

I’ve learnt stuff since then, though 😦

My mother’s parents died when she was very young, as did my father’s mother; my father’s father (whom I called Baba) lived with his stepdaughter in Delhi because my father was on postings outside Delhi. Baba would visit us for a few weeks every year, a frail man who carried a cloth bag full of Urdu and Persian books when he went out for long walks. He did not have anything much to say to me. For those few weeks when he was visiting, home would seem somewhat different, but not by much. He was in good health, and except for his habit of smoking the hookah, there was no oddity of his that I noticed too much.

When my father finally got posted to Delhi, I remember this discussion on whether Baba would want to move in with us, but Baba wanted to stay in Delhi 6 with his cronies nearby. My contact with him was this once-a-month visit when my mother would drive down to Turkman Gate with me, and Baba would come to our parked car by rickshaw and she would drive him home for lunch with us, and a few hours later, he would be dropped back and all would be normal again for him and for us. Then he started falling ill, and his visits reduced, and then he fell more ill, and there was talk of whether he should now be looked after by his one and only son, my father. But Baba was comfortable in his home, and this “duty of son” relocation was shifted week by week by everyone concerned, and when a date was finally fixed, Baba passed away a day before that.

Me, I never really saw Baba when he was unwell. I visited the Delhi 6 home a couple of times in those last years, peeped into his room; the air was a bit stale, the room looked small to me (I was used to large Govt apartments in New Delhi), his Persian books were unreadable squiggles. I would do the Namaste and hang around for a few minutes, not sure what to say, and sensing his discomfort with me, too. No one discussed his health in my presence. I was in my pre-teens then.

There were other elders in the family, too. Old aunts, uncles. I knew them when they were active and bossy; when they became frail, they would stop coming to the functions where I was likely to meet them. If I visited some home with an ailing elder, my only contact would be a quick peep for a quick Namaste into a secluded cheerless room and then I’d be out again. When I would hear of the death after a few weeks or months, it never really hit me. Old people die, no?

The same was true of the society around me. Active elders were seen walking, talking, lecturing, bossing around, joking, playing with grandkids. Other elders…who knew where they were? Not I.

So it was only natural that I never realized what age did to people once they were past that active phase. I had no real need to understand what illness did, or frailty, or dependence, or that final phase of illness and dying and death.

I suspect my education on matters of age and dying would have been different if I’d grown up in a joint family or an extended family or if Baba had actually moved in with us…

The result of my “ignorance is bliss” state of mind was that I never thought about how my parents would be going through that phase and how it would impact them and me and my hubby and son. Oh, in theory I knew they would age and die. But I was both clueless and uncurious about what it could involve.

My mother started talking of her death a few years after my father retired, but I think she was pretty clueless herself. She had not seen ageing either, as all her family members died off when very young. Her statements would be something like You should do what I say. Who knows how long I shall life and you will regret not obeying me after I die and How long will I live anyway? It is just a matter of a few years or even a few months. Can’t you keep me happy for even that much time? (this was twenty years ago, BTW). And of course, the sentences she said day in and day out, I will never be dependent on anyone. I will do all my work right till the day I die.

My father was slightly more clued about death, having spent his childhood in an unshielded environment of a closed community and joint family, but he rarely spoke.

So I continued with my vague impression that death was something that happened and there was this hazy phase before it when “dying” happened, and this phase would go through smoothly and with no major impact on anyone (including the person who happened to die at the end of it) and that I had no need to think or plan. This was, you understand, not a rational assessment of facts, just a vague impression I never bothered to validate or refute.

Then, when I was thirty-eight years old, my father broke his femur. Rather, it broke on its own, without his even falling–a non-traumatic fracture.

This was not my father’s first post-retirement illness; he had suffered from hernia and other problems, but they had been episodic–problem happens, rush to hospital, suffer a week or two of tension and utter dislocation, crawl back to a slightly different, reduced version of “normal”. But my father’s femur fracture was a different type of problem because it rendered him bedridden and on traction and leached his morale. Even so, we around him assumed he would get better and life would be a new “normal” again, and so, as months passed, as he recovered, relapsed, recovered, we always saw normalcy as being just a few months away. It was only after over a year that doubt began setting in.

Almost two years later, in hospital, a few days after he was moved from ICCU to a normal room and was a day away from some invasive tests he did not want, he died suddenly.

Death, finally. Close up it seemed…extreme. Next morning I was at Nigambodh Ghat, near a smoking pyre, performing the gruesome last rites as I stared at his skull and tapped it with his stick as instructed by the pandit. Surreal.

Within a few days of that, my mother, who had somehow held herself together through all this, started showing cracks and it became obvious that she could not live alone, that she was now dependent and mentally unable to handle things. I now faced frailty in a person who had always been stronger than me.

When I look back at these last sixteen years since my father’s fracture, I am amazed at how little I knew of ageing and dying till that femur broke. I’m not an expert now, mind you, just less ignorant.

I realize now that knowledge on ageing is often not visible to youngsters who do not live with ageing elders. Elders who are ailing, frail, dependent, and dying are hidden from view of others, and are not talked about. So people like me who grow up in nuclear families without any exposure to the older generation just don’t know what is entailed in ageing, and we don’t prepare for it. We set up our homes, make our choices in all sorts of matters without factoring in this phase of our parents’ lives, not understanding that we may need to realign our lives for supporting them. We don’t even know what support is or could be. Then, when the need arises, our lives are so set and rigid on paths that don’t take parental dependence into account that the adjustment gets very tricky.

Some time back, a friend was telling me how she expected her parents to always be strong and for her, and how it was a shock for her to realize that they were getting frail and dependent.

Strange, in a way.

I sometimes read articles on how younger people should take care of elders and all that, and I think that if we want a society where it is easy to support elders, the first step may be to ensure that the most important facts of life–ageing, possible dependence, need for support, dying–are talked of openly. That ageing problems are not masked under the “they should remain active and positive” mantra. I think of how assertive my mother was that she would be independent till her dying day, and I wonder how much we mix up wishful thinking with fact. She did not want to face the fact that she could not predict how she would age; I did not want to face the fact that she had no way of knowing.

Our culture treats any discussion on problems (ageing, illness, dependence, dying, death) as negative (shubh shubh bolo, we are told, and hushed immediately), so what is surprising about our inability to cope with it? About our not being able to find the right words, stay connected…

Another incident I remember is of an enthusiastic Buddhist who gave up Buddhism because she was disillusioned that her father died. When I heard of it, I wondered–did this devout Buddhist think her father would live forever? (especially as Buddhism very clearly has stuff on impermanence and death, and plenty of teachings reminding people of it).

And then I think, maybe none of us really expect people close to us to die. I remember how I was sixteen years ago: ignorant and uncurious and unconcerned about such issues, and assuming that my parents will always be active (even though I knew theoretically that they would someday die). I remember how I never quite noticed ill and reclusive elders in an “out of sight out of mind” way and I wonder about the pain and loneliness I never saw and maybe others don’t see either. I also wonder how things would be different if we all were open and matter-of-fact about all this…

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About Swapna Kishore
I'm a writer, blogger, and resource person for dementia/ caregiving in India. I have also been a dementia caregiver for well over a decade, and am deeply concerned about dementia care in India; on this blog I share my personal caregiving journey, my experiences as a resource person for dementia care, and musings on life, aging, dementia in India, and such sundries. More about me and the work I do for dementia care. For structured information on dementia, for discussions, tools and tips on caregiving issues, for resources in India, and for caregiver interviews, please check my website http://dementiacarenotes.in (or its Hindi version, http://dementiahindi.com). For videos on dementia caregiving (English and Hindi), check the youtube channel here.

2 Responses to A nuclear family sans elders, blissful ignorance about ageing and elders, rude awakenings

  1. Rummuser says:

    Let me give a different perceptive as a much older person.

    I grew up in a nuclear family but which was full of relatives from both the mother’s and father’s side frequently coming to stay with us and we going to stay with them. So, a foot in both formats, as it were, was part of my life and I moved on to my own nuclear family after marriage.

    Death, old age, infirmity, care giving, care receiving etc are all part of my scenario too. I do not see why we cannot be open and matter of fact about all these. Nothing stops me now nor ever did in the past, nor any one else in my family.

    I think that it is largely in the minds of the young that we should not be open and matter of fact about these matters. My idea of young of course is anyone twenty or more years younger than I am!

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