This Christmas season was different. We’re not Christians and don’t really observe Christmas but like many of our friends join in the festivities and merry making that also marks the season of the ending of the year.
Normally, our family would go somewhere for a holiday but this year things are different. My 93-year old aunt has fallen ill and has been bed ridden in hospital since the 16th. She’s special to my sister and I. She was the one whom we were closest too when we were young because our mother would be out of the house teaching. She has been stayed with us ever since I, the elder of two siblings, was born. She had married but her husband died from an illness soon after the wedding and she’s been part of our family since.
It was a no brainer then that as a family we’d forgo our seasonal holidays to spend time with her and Mum, who’s also pushing 84.
The decision turned out to be timely. Two days before we were due to fly to Malaysia, my aunt was readmitted to the geriatric ward of the hospital. Her lungs had been clogged up and she hovered between delirium and unconsciousness.
Since coming back my sister and I have been taking turns together with our maid, attending to my aunt. Other family members visited when they could. It turns out that my aunt was infected with Klebsillia, a contagious bacteria that causes all sorts of pandemonium to the body, including pneumonia.
These are the things I learned while being a caregiver over the past few days.
Being a caregiver is hard work – I had thought that the job comprised of one sitting by the bedside, opening up the computer and surfing the Net or reading a book, and occasionally attending to the patient. Wrong. In my aunt’s case, on many days she would moan and groan ever few minutes or complain of pain.
You don’t know how much of the pain is actually experienced by her or it’s in the imagination but you care for her so you try to find out and to reassure her. That leaves you little time for anything else and at the end of the day you’re dead tired mentally and physically.
You also need all sorts of skills as a caregiver. In the two weeks or so I learned how to feed my aunt through a tube because she had stopped eating, how to change adult diapers when she soiled herself, and how to change clothes and bed sheets for the bed ridden. There were nurses but they were so overworked that unless you rolled up your sleeves you had to wait a long time before you can get some service.
The treatment, level of care and friendliness at University Hospital, a government teaching hospital, is as good if not better than what you’d get at private hospitals. The facilities may not look so spanking new but they are not backward in terms of equipment, level of care, courtesy and medical advice. In fact, listening to the many stories of how mercenary private hospitals have become I tend to think that we get better recommendations and treatment here than in the private hospitals. That’s because the medical staff here want to do their jobs, as opposed to wanting to make lots of money in private hospitals.
Siddharta Gautama was right. Old age is suffering. My aunt was one tough cookie. When I was growing up I could not recall a single time she want to the doctor. Even well into her early 80s she did without doctors, popping only an occasional Panadol when she felt unwell. Right up to her first serious bout of illness about a month ago my aunt could still walk around with a stroller, albeit we coud see her getting slower and weaker as old age and osteoporosis took their toll.
But she could not go on forever.
So this seems the final decline and it is not pretty. He streak of independence has been compromised, her dignity stripped as she is not even able to change her own soiled clothes. For the first time in her adult life she has had to rely on others.
It is heartbreaking but it is also the natural course of things. Unless we drop dead while still relatively young, all of us are destined to suffer through old age as it robs us of motion, our senses and our will. The only recourse we have left for our aunt is to make sure that she feels as comfortable as possible and, if it is still possible for her, to know that she’s being loved to the end, a reciprocation of the care and love she showered us when we were young. It is a debt that we cannot even begin to repay.
Update – It is now New Year’s Eve and my aunt is still in hospital. She’s due to be discharged on Monday. The doctor has said that she should be with family after discharge.
Happy New Year everyone. Do not forget to show your love and appreciation for those who helped raise you in an atmosphere of love and acceptance.