Supporting our Elders

Swapna Narayanan 

kjzsxMany working couples are grappling with a new challenge these days. While we have learnt to strike a balance between raising kids and managing our careers, we now have another aspect to think of – supporting our ageing parents.

In this article, we focus on a woman’s perspective, though it applies to men equally.

As Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi Co., regularly points out for a woman her biological clock and career clock often conflict.

When we are having children, we also need to build our careers. When we are taking some managerial responsibilities, our kids need us more as they are now teenagers. And by the time we support and stabilise them along with our own professional growth, our parents and our husband’s parents start needing us.

As more and more families today need to do this, and I see women struggling to do it, there is a need to pen down a few tips that work. These tips stem from my experience of taking care of an elder (Amma) in the family and from what I see my cousins and friends doing at their homes.

All in all, I hope it enables at least some of you streamline the functioning of your home.

At the outset, let me begin with the premise that all the elders who today need your support were once independent and leading their lives as lawyers, policymakers, teachers or efficient homemakers. However, today they may need our support for even some elementary things. And as responsible adults, we must provide them the same with empathy, care and most importantly love. A life of grace and dignity is something that every human being in this world is entitled to.

So, here is my 7-point sutra that covers the basic ground.

Outsource the mundane – The first challenge that we all face is the additional work load. Depending on the level of the care the elder needs, the tasks to be done varies. First tip that I would recommend is to take external help for the mundane everyday activities.  If you have an elder who needs help in doing the basic day to day tasks such as bathing, feeding etc., enlist the services of a home nurse or an attendant. In our case, initially our schedule included giving bath and feeding not only our children but also Amma. A daunting task for anyone, especially a working couple. However, after some time we realised that having support for doing the trivial tasks of visits to the bathroom, giving bath, feeding etc. frees out your time that can be spent more qualitatively with the person. Finances were tight, but we decided to cut a few corners and make space for a nurse. While I can write a book on my experience with young nurses, overall I realized that having them was a blessing.

Spend quality timeQuite often, we completely underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have a potential to turn a life around, said a famous author. While this is true for anyone, this has the most relevance for our elders. The outright fact is that they need you and your time. So my next sutra would be spend quality time with your elders. We are all busy with our own challenges of work pressures, demanding children, traffic issues, financial problems, yet irrespective of how busy you are, you must ensure you have at the least a short conversation with them on a regular basis. And, while it will boost their spirits, it will also clear the clutter off your heads too.

Replicate their usual living environment – When we are raising our kids, we always go and look out for objects that our children feel happy and even safe with.  Invariably it is a soft toy or a handkerchief or a pillow that gives the children a lot of solace, peace and calm. Quite similarly, we need to recreate their usual living environment for elders too. If the elders are continuing to live in their own house, then this is not an issue. However if you have moved them out, then it is critical you do that.  It can be their usual medicine box or a copper water jug right next to their bed or even their coarse cotton bed.

In Amma‘s case, her core anchors in life was her house and her son (and grandsons). After the demise of my father in law, we had shifted her to our house which is luckily on the first floor of the same building. However, she was very uncomfortable. It took us almost a year to realize that. Once we moved her back to her own room at her house, there was harmony within her and you could see her getting less agitated.  Since her other anchor was well defined, we set up a ritual that one of us will surely go and spend a few minutes with her every day. This ensured that she was content and her eyes reflected her happiness.

Retain their independence – While they may need some support from you now, they have always lived a busy and independent life. So continue the same. Encourage them to do their usual chores like running errands, visiting the bank, shopping for groceries, cooking meals, supervising the maids, saying their prayers etc.

Give them what they want – Another area where I think we tend to fail, but is most critical, is in serving them food of their choice, with warmth and love. In our busy schedules, at times, this becomes a demanding task, but that is still not an excuse. In many a households, I have seen folks (even children) chiding their elders while eating sweets because they are diabetic or restricting their intake of food because of some health issue. While I completely believe that as care givers, we need to ensure that their diet is suitable for their health, I also believe food is the core pillar of an individual’s life and we cannot blatantly restrict it. We have no right to do that. Yes – we must control and keep a track, but we cannot deprive them of their favourite food from their lives just because they are in the other end of the spectrum today. While I do not have a ready to use formula on how much to give and how much to restrict, I can only recommend that you strive to strike a balance. You can.

Another aspect that we lack in giving is warmth and love. As Mother Teresa said, it is not how much you do, but how much love you put in doing.  We were very particular about involving Amma in our lives like having food with her, or showing her a new purchase of the house or seeking her blessing while setting out on something important. Irrespective of her health condition, she was a part and parcel of our lives as always.

Explain to your children – Well, to do the above, you need support from your own family. And, you must explain to young children of the family as to why their hitherto involved grandparent is slowly diminishing. Children are very inquisitive and observant. And we must equip them with two core aspects of care giving – compassion and empathy.  So, if you have children at home, do ensure you talk to them and answer all their questions, even the unasked ones. However, despite all that, there will be times when children will tend to get frustrated. The idea may seem binding, boring and daunting at times to them. More so, when you have to give up on some planned vacations and outings.  But then, I am sure when they grow up and mature they will appreciate and be glad that their grandparents lived a dignified life till the end.

Keep an eye – Last but not the least, keep an eye all the time. It is a 24/7 task. A tad lax, you might have a bigger challenge to handle. Most common ones being slips and falls.

And if you have engaged some help, then keeping an eye on the nurse and ensuring he/she does the needful is also another 24/7 job. While they are there to do the mundane, you need to still always be alert and watch out to ensure that there are no lapses like forgotten medicines, soiled diapers, bed sores or worse falls because of their neglect.

Supporting our elders to live a life with grace and dignity is the need of the hour. We must give love and care for them as to care for those who once cared for us is one of the highest honours. And, also the fact remains – our own children learn not by what we say, but what we do. Our actions speak a lot more than words.

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