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Growing Old 2: More to ponder?

A senior citizen sits along a five-foot way in Penang - Photograph: Penny Wong

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In this sequel, Wong Soak Koon offers some useful advice to those coming to terms with their golden years.

People do say that any sequel is never as good as the original, whether in films (remember how Jaws 2 was such a disappointment compared to its predecessor?) or any other medium.

Age has, however, made me tranquil or more foolhardy – so here goes, with more on ageing. There is much to ponder and if Growing Old 1 – “Growing old, not only for senior citizens but for all to ponder?” – was a trifle reflective, this little sequel will be both reflection and practical steps.

Once again, one must state that no group is homogeneous; senior citizens are as fascinatingly diverse as any other age group. There should not be a case of one size fits all. What I outline here is arguably more useful to senior citizens who are reasonably healthy and moderately solid financially.

Social class, urban-rural divides, gender, cultural and religious affiliations, and state of health are some of the many variants that make seniors interesting, intriguing and even appealing, if you can view grey hair and wrinkles as badges of character and evidence of lives fully lived.

Senior citizens become invisible if they are emptied of individuality in stereotypes of the grumpy, Scrooge-like figure, bent both in spirit and body, or of the cruel, aged mother-in-law of popular entertainment. You can think of a few more flat, cartoon figures of seniors in the popular imagination.

A sense of humour

Without excusing this sometimes cruel, sometimes unconscious stereotyping, many seniors have kept their sense of humour and, without rancour, have learnt to laugh at what is superficial.

Before I wrote this piece, a friend, 77, widowed three years ago, with whom I happily reconnected, told me, “Soak Koon, you may want to point out how important a sense of humour is as we age.”

Yes, indeed. Aches and pain when we wake in the morning, slower movements, can rob us of the ability to smile.

I am the last person to advocate a flippant, histrionic humour but I do encourage a continued effort to smile at the lighter side of life – like the funny wobble of a puppy as it tries to climb over a stool, or when a naughty child, a friend’s grandson, impishly taught his innocent Indian tutor rude Cantonese words, which the poor man, without knowing the true meanings, then went on to use! I must have seemed most unhelpful to the boy’s parents since I was laughing heartily while they rebuked the child sternly.

To keep a sense of humour, we learn not to “sweat the small things”. Then we shall not “fat larn char” instantly , which means rant and rave in Cantonese. I have been told by many, some younger friends, that I tend to get very easily riled by “small things” like dust on the furniture or too many commas and semicolons sprinkled everywhere by students in unwieldy essays.

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Now, I simply let go and wait till the next cleaning session (of course, one must take care not to tip the scales into grimy hoarding which some old folk do get into). And I let the students off with gentle reminders.

A sense of humour often complements a sense of wonder, which infuses the most ordinary object with an aura of the marvellous. This is a faculty easily lost as we age. Wordsworth, in his oft-quoted poem Tintern Abbey, laments this loss of a child-like apprehension of the world which sees beauty in leaf and bud. What blessed grace if, in the late season of life, we are still thrilled by a sunset, by birdsong and by the play of light and shadow on a garden wall.

Cosy spaces ‘where everybody knows your name’

Many seniors would remember the sitcom Cheers, from which we get this memorable line in the theme song: “It is good to go where everybody knows your name.”

As seniors age, especially if they live alone, it is good cheer to have cosy spaces to adjourn to, like a breakfast cafe or a familiar library where the proprietor and servers or the librarian greet you warmly.

Here again, it is very much a matter of personality because some, young or old, merely want a quiet, private meal or undisturbed reading time. But for me, it is such a joy to feel connections. After all, even the late EM Forster, a rather private man and resident novelist at Cambridge, gives us this pithy advice, “Only connect”, in Where Angels Fear to Tread.

Change and new reflections

Nonetheless, the balance to cosy spaces or comfort zones are new, fresh spaces. Are we, as seniors, sometimes too afraid of change?

This is perfectly understandable since, whatever one’s age, change is always challenging. Are there new cafes we can try or new free libraries we can visit if we overcome anxiety about the unfamiliar? Perhaps we should remember that change can also refresh us.

In my own experience, one mental change was to be less “snobbish” in my choice of reading materials. As a former academic, snugly ensconced in what David Lodge calls the “small world” of academia, I much preferred so-called “literary” works. How ironic that after my encounter with postcolonial and subaltern literary theories, which critique canonical works, I was still a “snob”.

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Now I read anything that fascinates me if it is honest and well written. In our silver years, can we venture into new areas that we have neglected or never thought of? Can actuaries, statisticians or accountants – who loved numbers far more than words in their youth – give words more room in their lives now that, as senior citizens, they have more leisure to read?

By the same token, can I, or those like me who never liked maths, at least learn good personal accounting? Economics was never my favourite subject in school but now I find myself quite fascinated (maybe 1MDB has something to do with it or was it the Occupy Wall Street protest movement?).

Yet change is not always associated with new exciting discoveries as we age. One of the hardest changes to acknowledge is the need to slow down – which can mean not climbing a ladder to wipe the fans or going down a flight of steps recklessly. “Mind the step”, that famous notice posted in the London Underground railway, is a good motto for seniors.

Recently, I was at a little kopitiam where, after my order of nasi lemak and kopi-O, I was trying to sit down too fast on a wobbly flimsy stool. Thank goodness a waiter held on to me to prevent a fall.

Slow down, take the time to be safe – that would be my advice to all seniors, especially to those like me, an OKU (person with disability) with post-polio muscle imbalance. Let go of that pride which prevents us from asking for help. I now readily and gladly accept a helping hand before stepping onto fast-moving escalators at shopping malls.

My younger relatives advise me to use apps to explore help for heavy shopping like bags of rice, potatoes and suchlike groceries. Today, there are many such facilities providing shopping services for a small fee. Some supermarkets even offer free delivery for online orders.

Clearly, a knowledge of IT would be helpful but some seniors fear the strange new world of cyberspace. I myself was never very comfortable with gadgets and technology. I remember looking at a booklet “Computers For Dummies” in a bookshop only to have a young customer standing nearby tell me, “Aunty ah. No need to buy. You must be hands-on mah. Only way to learn. Don’t worry. The computer won’t break. Wrong already, go back to first screen. Easy what.”

Today, I ask help from my young students and I can see their amusement, as the tables are turned and they note how forgetful and incompetent I am. The teacher who nagged them about plurals and singulars now has to figure out and recall small IT steps. One learns to laugh at oneself instead of fuming and fretting when wrong icons are clicked on.

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Public policy and the government’s role

As I reread what I have written, I see that it is quite personal and can only hope that this essay does resonate with readers. More than this, I observe that the mention of IT, of cafes, of malls smacks of a very middle-class ageing scenario. As I stated earlier, senior citizens differ in terms of so many variants, social class being a key difference.

I was glad, therefore, to read recently (The Star, 11 January 2019) that Deputy Prime Minister Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail “announced the government’s commitment to legislating an act to protect the rights and welfare of the elderly”.

It is good to know that the Pakatan Harapan government is paying timely attention to the aged, one of the most invisible and vulnerable groups in our country. A practical step would be assistance for those in financial need who care for aged parents. I believe quite a number of children with aged parents are filial, but pressing economic demands make it hard for them to do their duty.

However, the abuse of the elderly is never a matter of social class as it traverses class and racial boundaries. It is unnerving to learn from the Star that “one in 10 Malaysians over the age of 60 in urban areas experience abuse” and that “in rural communities, one in 20 experience forms of abuse”.

Some kind of legislation is in order. Yet it is hard to legislate morality or police lack of filial piety. The Ministry of Education, religious organisations and relevant civil society groups can do much to imbue our children with the need to honour their parents even in an age of fragmented family togetherness.

And what of those, among the elderly, who are bedridden or need hospice care? Even more than the relatively healthy elderly, this group of human beings who now face the last miles in life’s journey are often shunned or hidden away. Perhaps this is the result of a capitalistic-consumeristic world which foregrounds ageless energy, unbounded earning power and eternal physical allure.

Our national laureate, Shahnon Ahmad, in the novel Tunggul-Tunggul Gerigis, paints a riveting picture of the tragic neglect of the elderly protagonist, Su Usul. We can learn much from this depiction of ageing.

Surely the mark of a civilised society is how it treats vulnerable groups and how it soothes the passage from life to death.

So I end with an encouraging reminder from Dame Cicely Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice movement: “You matter because you are you and you matter to the last moment of your life.”

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Dr Wong Soak Koon is a longtime member and former executive committee member of Aliran. She gained a first-class honours BA degree and a masters in English literature from the University of Malaya and a doctorate in English Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied under a Harvard-Yenching fellowship
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