She hears but does not understand. She asks but then forgets. She retells events that never happened and I listen with struggling patience. When she asks the same monotonous questions numerous times the urge to end the phone call grows but then I remember – she can’t help it. She is confused beyond my understanding but I don’t stop my feeble and desperate attempts to answer her questions. To come to terms that acceptance is my only medication took so painfully long. They say that “growing older is a privilege denied to many”. Perhaps. However one thing they don’t include in the contract of growing old is the gradual deterioration of memory, that robs you of the ability to engage with loved ones. My grandma signed this contract with a flourish and like many of us forgot to read the terms and conditions.
I could say my earliest memories take me back to my maternal grandparents who brought me up to the age of five, in particular my grandmother – or “Ammachi” as we call her in India – who gladly took the place of my mother. But that would be cliched and untrue; after all who remembers their first steps? Nevertheless without hesitation I can say it tied a permanent bond so tightly they share one place with my parents on the stage of my heart. From a few shattered patches of memory I recall an Ammachi with a short plump stature giving endless warmth and hugs that drugged me with the distinctive aroma of herbs and spices; her concerned face that expressed her “shock” at my “malnourishment” (when actually photos provide evidence that I was an embarrassingly obese toddler which I believe my grandma is to blame for) which led to her frequently bombarding me with food. In particular I remember she would always offer me first any delicacies she had made as my other cousins watched on enviously and accused her of favouritism.
Perhaps it’s the Indian culture I was bought up in that has great respect for the elderly and where dumping them in a care home is unthinkable, but that is where my love of old people is rooted. However as the years churned on it changed an Ammachi who was once elated at the mention of my name, to one now barely aware of my existence. A minute into the phone call and I lose her at “So, how are you?”; a further five minutes to explain how we are related; I end the call once again with the anchor of my heart sinking with a heaviness that finally forces me to accept it. That was the most difficult part – acceptance of the gradual disintegration of memory as a natural ingredient in the process of ageing and even more that it was happening to my grandma. It’s a weight that ins you down as you crave for a time which cannot be repeated, for an Ammachi who once chased me with food, took my side in all rows and lovingly pressed crisp rupee notes into my palms when I came for holidays.
What is it I like about old people, I often find myself asking. Normally people have a soft spot for babies or puppies but that spot for me lies with a different generation. All the stereotypes people associate with the elderly like “the smell of soap and mints”, the constant questioning and bewildered confusion are all the things that form my love of old people. Just to be in their presence is a privilege – a belief that I am plucking a leaf from the tree of wisdom that has sprouted in them over time, a belief that beneath the wrinkled and worn exterior of every elderly person lies the universe of their life; within the fold of each wrinkle lies an experience; lessons learned and forgotten. They are probably the only kind of people you can sit with in silence without an awkwardness, a silence that tips you into a natural and unforced reflection.
My fondness of the elderly, quite conveniently led me to do my work experience for Medicine in the “Medicine of the Elderly” ward, a world where dementia is only a brick in the tower of illnesses that have afflicted them. It lasted just two days but the invaluable memories will certainly last. More importantly meeting the 20 patients on that ward aided in my understanding of the road my grandma is trudging along. Frankly I struggled to maintain or stay interested in a conversation with some of the patients as they stared blankly out the window waiting for the next hurried visit from a relative. Their gratitude for spending time simply talking to them unearthed a strange feeling of content in me. I unconsciously slipped into a daydream that one day I too will take my place in that armchair trying to untangle my confused mind, waiting for death to blanket me.
This unfazed approach to death that old people have a recurring theme that struck me. On ward rounds with the consultant, hearing the doctor confess that “there isn’t much left to be done” was a subtle reminder that time is short. I felt my own vision hazed with a familiar stinging as I pleaded with my sensitive self not to cry – imagine the embarrassment if I had. However what surprised me were the gentle nods of acceptance the patient gave as a reply suggesting the news is not new to them – it’s a storm they have already fought – as they unflinchingly gazed back with eyes too weary to express any sort of shock or disbelief. I found Ammachi also guilty of this attitude of preparing a warm welcome for death because during our phone calls she tells me she wishes he would hurry up. I find myself crumbling inside as I angrily shout at her for mentioning it.
I have to admit that old people do test your patience and getting angry with parents is not a new occurrence. However there is a difference between an oh-my-gosh-you’re-ruining-my-life fit of adolescence and the harsh grumbling when your old father’s forgetfulness gets the better of him. The soft silence of their reply that lets their adult son or daughter remember that once it was they who asked an annoying number of times the name of a bird in the park, it was they who pestered them to repeat the dates of their summer holiday. All those unending questions and they still tirelessly, gently and loving answered them. Now all it takes is “When are you coming to visit darling?” To set them off on a rant of “how many times have I told you Mum!”. We forget so quickly, that while we were busy growing up, they were also growing old. I think the biggest sin we can commit against our old people is to forget that they too were once young, once vibrant and once heedful. Once like us, Forgetting this creates a sense of poverty in the elderly much more powerful than hunger or lack of shelter – loneliness. Therefore spending time with them is not just an act of kindness but a duty we have towards them.
After two and a half long years I will be spending my Christmas with Ammachi this year. Just the thought of sitting next to her and inhaling that familiar distinctive aroma of herbs and spices, soaking up all the wisdom I can and hopefully once again being force fed endless “sweets” excites me more than I can express. Whether she will instantly recognise me is another story. But even if she does not acknowledge my presence I pray that the acceptance I have taught myself will not fail to function because memory is not your faithful servant. Then maybe I too will sign the contract and forget to read the terms and conditions.
Akhila Sibi George