What should we do with old people?


I look after my great-uncle who lives in an old age home. I love my uncle dearly. He will be 90 years old next May (or 91 if you go by the Chinese calendar).

Uncle was born in the same decade they discovered King Tut’s tomb, when the first “talkie” came out and Mickey Mouse was born.

In his lifetime he has also lived through The Great Depression, The Chinese Cultural Revolution, World War 1 & 2, the Holocaust, the communist conquering of China, the Long March of the Red Army, the Sino-Japan War, the Cold War beginning and ending, the space race and the beginning of the Soviet Union, the Vietnam War, the Sharpeville Massacre, the building of & breaking down of the Berlin Wall, Apartheid in South Africa, the Bisho uprising, the King Williams Town bombing and Nelson Mandela being released from prison.

Mt. Helena erupted, there was the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Ethiopian famine, the Bhopal poison gas leak and the discovery of HIV/Aids.

Somewhere in the middle of his life, TV was invented, as was Disco, the Rubik’s Cube, Pac-Man and Star Wars… I don’t believe my uncle was a big Thriller fan.

Respect for elders is often the basis for the way society is organised and has been at the foundation of Chinese culture and morality for 1000’s of years. The wisdom of the ages is highly regarded and the elderly enjoy high status.

I was reflecting on an article I wrote some time back for Jozikids titled Remembering the Elderly.

One of the legacies passed on to me by my parents was respect for elderly people. In today’s society where older people are often seen as irrelevant at best and useless at worst, it has become very important to me that I find a way to instill this same value into my own children.

I concluded with the following statement:

As relationships continue to break down in our society due to neglect, I believe that it’s vitally important to intentionally teach our children how to build them up.

Old people have traditionally been taken care of by their children in Chinese culture. Nursing homes are still a foreign concept for most. I read an article in a Chinese publication that said “those that enter nursing homes often feel as if they are being sent away and rejected”. Traditionally, grown children take care of their parents (and grandparents) when they get old.

Times have changed. Things are changing. The Hong Ning Chinese Aged Home in Belgravia, Johannesburg is the only specifically Chinese old age home in South Africa. (I must just add here that given that at the height of the South African born Chinese period the numbers were only 12,000 people the fact that there is just 1 nursing home in the country isn’t a great surprise.)

Hong Ning is well managed and Sister Maureen and her able and dedicated team of nursing sisters are a blessing and pleasure to be around.  The meals are welcomed traditional Chinese fare and all major Chinese days are celebrated.  A huge benefit for the residents is that they are able to communicate in their mother-tongue with the people around them.

I just can’t get over the fact that my uncle is living in a nursing home when I feel he should be living with one of his own family members.

The reality is that these days many children don’t want to or cannot afford to shoulder the burden of taking care of their parents, or simply do not have space in their homes. Rates of the elderly living alone or suffering from depression are rising. There are stories of elderly people abandoned in hospitals or suing their children for financial support. In some cases the elderly are treated better by nursing home staff than by their own families.

Does society value money above family ties these days?

Has there been a cultural shift from a society oriented towards the respect of elders to one that celebrates youth?

Is the older generation becoming the new silent generation?

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10 Comments

  1. Gaby

    Thank you for that wonderful post. It really resonated with me. On Friday, while meeting a friend for coffee after work, I noticed a frail elderly woman eating a meal at the table next to us. She sat down alone, ate alone and left alone and it deeply disturbed me. It disturbed me how dishevelled and lonely she seemed; how isolated.

    In the last year and a half I lost both my maternal grandmother and grandfather. Seeing that dear little old lady reminded me of the precious time spent with my own grandparents after they came to live with us when they became too frail to live independently. So many stories were shared, life lessons repeated and wonderful moments of laughter and tangible love. I felt incredibly heartbroken that the woman seemed not to have that sort of loveliness or support in her life currently.

    My Nana and Nandad loved, cared for and supported my Mom and I (both of us only children) through the years and it was our turn to look after them. While the last couple of years were extremely difficult and emotionally taxing, I would not want to do it any other way. We were fortunate enough to be able to get help and medical assistance at home, without which the task would have been nearly impossible for just the two of us. I think often the logistics of caring for a frail or elderly relative and the emotional distress lead to our oldies being isolated and lonely, whether it be in a home or even with their family.

    My Nandad had a favourite saying: “this ageing process is not for sissies”. In many ways I believe he’s right. It’s not easy watching friends, family and partners pass on as one continues to grow older, more frail, less independent and more frustrated at this seemingly long mourning process. It’s also deeply sad to watch an elderly relative go through this gradual shut down of body and mind despite their ageless spirit.

    I have to say though, I love Debbie’s idea about the Santa’s boxes and would love to get involved in/initiate a project like that in my suburb/city. Elderly folk should be revered, appreciated and spoilt all year, but especially during this festive period when loneliness is hard to escape. If a tiny little parcel helps to do this, then those who are able to assist must do it.

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    1. Mother

      Thank you Gaby! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your comment to this article as much as I enjoyed hearing my friend’s related stories that I’ve also posted on this blog (Sarien Clark & Fiona Dowie). Your Nandad is right! Ageing is not for sissies – for the elderly nor for their offspring. There is always ‘something’ that can be done – like Debbie’s idea for the aged. It just takes one person to start ‘something’ to get the ball rolling.

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  2. Lynn Barbour

    Lovely post. Such a good reminder of the amazing experience the older members of our society have gained – and what we gain by keeping connected with them.

    My children have had the privilege of knowing their great-grandmother – who lived to 92. My daughter absolutely adores old people – like many people love babies! – I can’t help thinking it came from knowing and loving Granny Moi.

    In terms of my family, my parents are both fiercely independent. My mom lives in a retirement village and absolutely loves it. My dad remarried and lives with his younger wife. Both would hate to lose their independence. We do enjoy seeing them.

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    1. Mother

      I love your comment Lynn, thanks! Your experience is just another different example of how we care for the elderly – and how the elderly choose to be cared for. You may also enjoy the other related articles on this theme (stories contributed by friends of mine); “Moving House After 34 Years” and “Keeping It In The Family”. Enjoy!

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  3. Martha

    I say let’s continue to take care of our old people Mel. I refuse to let my grand mam who is now 88 to go to an old age home, where she is gonna be lonely without her family around. I fully understand the dynamics this dayz that we are always busy with work & many many other activities we are involved in, however, let that not be an excuse for us to neglect our own.

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  4. Debbie

    The SantaShoeBox Project assists 100 000 children a year with necessities like soap, wash cloth, toothbrush, toothpaste, clothing etc… and something special just for them. I’d love to start up a similar project for SA’s elderly with essential items and a personal note or a book to read. How special would that make the holidays for them? (probably the loneliest time of year for many)

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