I always wanted to do things on my own, without help. That is a supremely foolish state of mind, but it was largely because I was a very coddled child, and my parents were fiercely overprotective. As a result, when I finally encountered the world on my own – I was woefully unprepared.
But this isn’t a post about my independence: I have that. It is about the independence of my parents.
My parents aren’t old as such; they’re in their 60s. But they are certainly getting there fast. Illnesses, stress, and the many hardships of an unpredictable life have taken their toll on them. They rely on me to take care of many things, right from banking to legal, and beyond. In the last two years especially, a lot of things are now my problem. This includes their health.
My father gets a headache; mom calls me to find out which pill he should take. She gets a rash; I tell her which cream. I apply balms, lotions, oils, ointments. I recently fell sick myself, and my parents were scrambling around to look after me.
As a result of their ill health, it was easy to fall into the trap of restricting them: don’t do this; don’t touch that; don’t go there. I’ve seen the pattern before. Today’s “don’t go on your own to the store” becomes tomorrow’s “I can’t go to the store on my own”.
I refused to do that. My father panicked when he was out of station, and my mom wanted to go out when I was at work. I calmed him down. She needs to do this, otherwise she will start losing her abilities. I wasn’t free of worry—she might stumble or trip—but I needed to imbue her with confidence too. Mom, you can do this. Call before you are leaving, and call once you are back. Tell us where you are going, and how long it will take.
She went out, and it was fine. But because she did that, she ended up being able to do lots of other things too. She travelled out of state on her own. She shopped on her own. She may not be back to her dynamo younger self, but at least she has retained most of her fire.
And when I think how easy it was to douse it, it makes me shudder.
Another story comes to mind, where I heard of an adult daughter dutifully looking after her almost-bedridden father. He soiled the bed frequently due to incontinence, and because of the lack of proper facilities. When cleaning him, she took off the covers, and left him exposed. While that may not matter in the grand scheme of things, these losses of dignity affect the mental equilibrium of a person. The helplessness and lack of agency is very distressing, and could contribute to a faster decline.
Therefore, I made a decision a long time ago: I would never subject my parents, or allow them to be subject to, a loss of their dignity. They would not be tied up by medical staff; they would not feel violated and helpless; they would never physically experience anything they didn’t choose. That included surgeries and other invasive procedures. My mother can’t have her blood drawn any more, because she can’t take the pain. That’s OK. It is her choice, and I respect that even though it is sometimes difficult.
The lady in the previous story is not callous or uncaring; quite the contrary, she loved her father dearly. The problem arose because there is an implicit assumption that one knows better. I may know better about what is good for my mother, but that doesn’t take away her right to choose.
So my plea is simple: please give older people their agency, and let them retain their dignity. People are starting to recognise that children need these to grow into well adjusted adults, but so too do older people. Perhaps even more so.