For ten days I had a lot of time to think about ageing. I’ve been looking after the DH’s grandmother, who is 92. I’ve not spent much time with old people in their last few years or months before they are set free from a world of aches and pains. About 16 years ago I watched my grandfather die a peaceful death with little fuss. Not everyone has his kind of good fortune.When I was a child I was very afraid of death. But I was more afraid of the dark. The dark came every night. It prevented my mother from watching the Jewel in the Crown on late night TV because it would be at that precise moment that I would want to be taken up to my room to sleep. I just couldn’t enter that room alone, although I don’t think I ever revealed that to her.
When I was little, my father would travel a lot for many conferences as he was publishing his work and getting a name for himself in his field. Those were the days of the single carriageway highways. Huge trucks, heavy traffic, blinding headlights, rash over taking. Much the same as today but without the safety of lighting and crash barriers. I was quite worried every time he went away, that an accident on the highway was around the corner.
I guess my fear of death was of people dying before their time. But when it comes to those who are old, have lived their lives and can’t perform the basic functions of life any more without it being a real struggle, I think their time has come to shuffle towards the light. But the lines are too blurry and the likelihood of abuse with assisted suicides is far too great. I’m not talking about all elderly people only about those who are bed ridden, weak and miserable because the operating system is just not booting up right.
I was left in charge of looking after the DH’s 92 year old grandmother, with the domestic help, Juli, who is more of family then employee and who takes such excellent care of the DH’s grandmother. She’s called duchi – which is really doosri amma (second mother). When I arrived, she was fine: reading the newspaper, reading Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, eating but not with much pleasure and going to the bathroom by herself with the use of a walker. She told me that up till now she had thought that God filled the empty spaces of the universe. But now these books tell her that tiny particles, smaller than electrons and neutrons fill the universe. She said, “All this time I thought it was God. Now these scientists with their tiny particles have come to trouble me!” How incredibly lucid I thought for someone 92 – still wanting to learn the latest about the universe.
But the one thing you don’t want happening to an old person happened – she fell in the bathroom. She has recovered from falls before. But this time, she physically and mentally unravelled. Incredibly no bones were broken, just possibly soft tissue damage on her hips and ribs. Despite the pain, the old lady just wouldn’t rest. 5 to ten trips to the bathroom at night because she was anxious about soiling the bed but conversely feeling guilty that she was being a bother to everybody. As she was aching all over but loathed to soil the bed, it took carefully crafted yogic poses on my behalf to forklift her from a lying to a standing position and get her to the bathroom. No adult diaper for this proud old lady.
I learned two things: while old people might look frail, they are dead weight (no pun intended). The human body is incredibly heavy to lift when the human just flops around, not resisting but not helping you either. Second, waking up 5 times every night for a week is incredibly damaging. Perhaps doctors on ‘call’ and parents with newborns are used to a disrupted sleep. But I found it incredibly difficult to go back to sleep once woken up. You expect the exhaustion will club you over the head but instead the chorus of the cicadas, the creek of the bed, the yawn of the dog makes you believe someone is calling out for you again. Mind you, I wasn’t woken up for every bathroom visit. But Juli had to every time.
The doctors recommended pain killers for the pain and a restful night. Unfortunately she reacts badly to pain killers. The ones that do sort out the pain leave her with tremendously wild hallucinations the next morning. Her eyes would glaze over and she’d be in another reality. At times her deliriums were hilarious and despite how sad the whole thing was, it did provide some much needed comic relief after the sleepless nights.
What made it funny was that she turned in to a person that was completely opposite of her sweet old lady demeanour. At one point, she thought the gardener was a spy and that the British had handcuffed her, thrown her on the ground and beat her up with sticks. She thought I was an ‘English Ladki’ (English girl) and wanted to speak to me in English because even though she hated the British, she loved to speak in English. I think at one point she reverted back to her Quit India days.
She has conversations with A.R Rahman (musician, household name in India and internationally know for the SlumDog Millionaire tunes) and Abdul Kalam (ex-President of India and nuclear scientist). She had to tell A.R Rahman to stop singing so that she could talk to Mr.Kalam. These delusions drain her and leave her in a confused limbo, shuttling between reality and this other world. She’s not like this all the time but sleep doesn’t come easy to her these days and no sleep makes for an anxious mind. But give her the smallest dose of anything to make her sleep and she’s swimming in a chemical soup with Abdul Kalam and Mountbatten.
British Anthropologist Ashley Montagu said, “The idea is to die young as late as possible.” No one can say when death will come. But if you get to live out your days and then reach a point where you are totally dependent on another person for every movement you make, is it worth it? I’m talking only of the elderly, not the young who are sick. I’m not in any way condoning the horrible things that recent TV exposes on old age homes have revealed about elder abuse.
Before my grandfather died 16 years ago, he had dementia. He couldn’t remember if a recent event had happened. His only barometre of time was whether the milkman had delivered the milk. And he would ask the question, ‘Has the milk man come?’ every 20 mins to half an hour. But ask him about his war days in Quetta or Java in the 1940s and the details would be gorily clear – down to the last tooth he lost in a grenade explosion while he was suturing up a soldier on the battle field, every midnight run in an open jeep along enemy lines.
He would hold a book in his hand without turning any pages. At the end of the day he would say he’s finished the book and ask for another. He would eat a meal and about 20 minutes later complain that we hadn’t fed him, that we were starving him. Eventually when he died of pneumonia, he didn’t have any major medical interventions, he didn’t want it either. I remember sitting by his bedside one night when my parents were away, Physics and Chemistry books open but my eyes on his chest struggling to rise up and falling back down again, wondering when that sign of life would suddenly stop. One night he died very peacefully in his own bed rather than in a hospital and without being pumped with drugs. The last thing he said was that he was feeling cold and he gasped his last with my father by his side.
On the one hand we pump our old people with medications to keep them going and then we say we wish they didn’t have to suffer. To stop the medication would be tantamount to assisted suicide (which I am not against but is still against the law in this country). Maurice Maeterlinck (Nobel Prize winner for Literature 1911) said, “All our knowledge merely helps us to die a more painful death than an animal who knows nothing.” I can’t help but think that we have more humanity for our animals than we do for our aged. We keep our animals alive if we think that they will get better from the treatment. But if all we are doing is extending the suffering, marginally improving the pain but not really alleviating the condition then we make those end of life decisions for them. I don’t think we do it because we are more superior than animals. One could argue a healthy human is more superior than an old or sick person. I believe it’s because we are more humane towards our animals. Recently Stephan Hawking voiced similar thoughts on assisted suicide for the terminally ill.
To continue living when the mind is hazy and the body is withered, being propped up by man’s chemicals, knowing that there is no light at the end of the tunnel on this planet, on the one hand waiting for death and on the other begging for one more day, is a situation I hope I never have to face.