Studies show that millions of older people go at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all. Many elders are well surrounded at home and are decently cared for. However, others are less fortunate.
What do old people need the most? A lot of things but on the top are Compassion, Kindness, Fondness, and Understanding. Mother Teresa once said, “The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy, it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicines but the only cure for loneliness, despair and hopelessness is love.”
When referring to the elderly, it’s important to distinguish between solitude and loneliness.
Solitude is positive. It’s an ideal means for spiritual growth and self-realization. An elderly must have his individual space. In many cases, solitude leads to creativity. You must probably have heard some elders saying that old age is the best moment of their lives. They may possibly be having in mind this awareness of solitude as a means of attaining inner peace and nurturing creativity. I have seen old men and women enjoying their days by sharing their knowledge of cooking or gardening or “bricolage” with the young. Pottering is about doing minor pleasant tasks in a relaxed way. Children enjoy observing and learning new things from the old. It’s wonderful to watch the patience and the enthusiasm with which an old person grafts one type of rose on a different type of rose tree. Children are entranced by the passion and the consummate skill with which an old person prepares a pineapple for eating. It’s spellbinding to see the grandfather putting every bit of his heart in the task of brushing the shoes of the grandchildren or a grandmother pouring her deepest feelings in the making of traditional cakes.
Moments devoted to prayer, meditation or introspection is recommended for an elder’s well-being. Some moments spent far from the madding crowd is invigorating and emotionally satisfying.
It is wrong to think that old people lose interest in the activities they used to practise. Many elders still like to do some reading – books or magazines or newspapers. An old man says, “si mo pa gagn mo lagazet toulezour, be mo tom malad”. Working alone for twenty or thirty minutes in the backyard is time well spent. Do something that you have always liked doing. Work can be blissful if you appreciate doing it.
Loneliness is associated with emptiness and exhaustion. In solitude, the mind is calm. The old find answers to their interrogations. They can see clearly into their dilemmas. In loneliness, there’s discomfort. Loneliness tends to amplify feelings of grief and is often referred to as the hidden killer. One of the greatest challenges of our elders is how to cope with grief.
They have had their own ups and downs and failures in their personal or professional lives; they may have lost dear ones along the way. An old person may have helplessly witnessed his house burning down in a fire or he may have been requested to identify the dead body of his son or daughter in the hospital. He has endured the pain as all pain must be endured – alone. We are largely ignorant of a person’s intimate life. We must therefore avoid adding to his woes. A kind word, a gentle gesture can go a long way in boosting a person’s spirit.
Failure to manage grief can take its toll on the person’s health. We must make sure that the old have positive things to do and warm relationships to share. Those going over lengthy periods of loneliness run a greater chance of developing clinical dementia than those who do not experience loneliness or who experience it over a shorter period.
It has been observed that loneliness is as bad to one’s health as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. It increases the risk of heart problems and even stroke. Loneliness may also cause blood pressure problems, depression and cognitive decline.
Let us not label them. The old do tend to be forgetful at times (not knowing where they have laid the spectacles, not remembering phone numbers, not knowing where they kept the bill). Let’s avoid saying they are suffering from Alzheimer’s. The old person may be touchy and may feel hurt. Alzheimer’s is a medical condition and let’s leave it to doctors. Let’s not pass judgement and unnecessarily complicate his life.
They must be encouraged to socialize. Take an old person to the market and let him chat with old acquaintances. Appropriate physical exercises help to lighten any weight on the mind. Take him out often and let him keep abreast of latest developments in the village.
They may be eccentric sometimes (not happy with the way food is cooked for them, finding fault with the way their shirts or trousers are ironed, unhappy with the noise the children are making) but let’s be indulgent, remembering that all of us, not just the old, have our own eccentricities. They may be very nostalgic, wishing to watch old movies or listen to retro songs. The younger generation must avoid being judgemental about the old person’s tastes.
As time passes, you will notice changes going on in the lives of the old. No one is supposed to be the same every day. Let us put up with the changes and keep in mind the words of W. Somerset Maugham, British writer, “We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person.”