Senescence: We keep getting older and that sucks


/sɪˈnɛs(ə)ns/ noun.
the state of being old:  the process of becoming old


My aunt took our grandma to get fitted for a hearing aid recently. It cost her about a thousand dollars, so naturally she was pretty pissed when Ahma refused to wear it at home. My dad and aunt chided her for taking it out of her ear each time they put it back in. It’s good for you, they told her. It’ll make life easier for you.

Too loud, she replied sharply in Cantonese. Too uncomfortable.

The hearing aid sits unused in a corner of the house. My relatives are exasperated but there’s nothing much they can do. I ask my dad if her hearing loss bothers her. My reasoning is that if she’s okay without perfect hearing, then we should just let her be.

“Even if her hearing loss doesn’t bother her, it sure bothers all of the neighbours,” he says. My ahma, reclining in her rattan deck chair, stares transfixed at the television that’s blaring at full volume. I see his point.

My grandmother isn’t able to carry a conversation these days; we aren’t sure if it’s because her Alzheimer’s is getting worse, or that she’s going deaf. According to Orbelo and colleagues (2005), hearing loss, neuropsychological decline (attention, working memory etc.) and decline in affective aprosodic comprehension (the ability to interpret attitude and emotion from non-verbal information) don’t happen concurrently because different parts of the brain atrophy at different rates. In any case, it’s hard to watch. And it’s stressful for my dad and his siblings.

A few years ago, she got lost on her way to play mahjong at a relative’s place. The entire extended family was mobilised. They frantically combed the areas that she usually passes through, the bus interchange and around the neighbourhood. When she finally wandered home several hours later, she refused to talk about what had happened, and denied that she’d gotten lost. After that incident, she stopped going out to play mahjong.

Watching someone else age presents the prospect of losing your mind

We can only speculate that my Ahma was distressed by the event, and ashamed of her waning ability to navigate familiar places. But we can never know for sure if she is conscious of her cognitive decline, since she vehemently denies it.

We try imagine how horrifying it must be to wake up and realise you’re not sure how to brush your teeth, or where the home telephone is, or how to read the calendar. Cognitive decline impacts self-competence and naturally, self-esteem. In other words, it must feel pretty damn shitty.

If that’s true, then it’s terrifying for all others involved who’ve to grapple with what that means for us when we get to that age. Nobody likes the thought of getting old, but the fear of it stems from what we observe from the ones we love who have already begun their slow descent into those ‘golden’ years.

“Aging alone does not seem to have much of an effect on happiness,” say Calvo, Haverstick and Sass (2009). It’s the decline in health, both mental and physical, and the loss of social roles that come with aging that makes people miserable.

Mainly, it’s a loss of control. Since agency is integral to humanness, losing control, even if it is only perceived control, over our circumstances removes purpose and motivation in existing. Individuals need to be able to make choices or at least take responsibility over our actions; it literally keeps us alive. Rodin and Langer (1976) proved this by giving some of the elderly in a nursing home potted plants and making them take care of it. They ended up living longer than the guys who didn’t have to water plants.

So, does this sense of hopelessness infect those around someone whose mind is starting to go?

Certainly it is threatening to our own sense of self and our cognitive notion of happiness- whether we believe our future lives will fulfil the criteria of a good one (pertaining to income, health, social status, or whatever else your proxy measures of happiness are).

But beyond that, there’s also a more immediate helplessness we face when we realise that are incapable of pulling our loved ones back into lucidity. The grim reality that they are slipping away from us can fill us with guilt and anger.

You don’t grieve for someone who isn’t dead. But what do you do instead, when they aren’t alive in a way that resembles anything they used to be? Now that lifespans are longer, dying is protracted and so caregivers are in limbo, held hostage by uncertainty.

Collateral damage from losing a loved one

In Singapore, close to 95% of the elderly live with a family member so for majority of the population, the burden of caregiving falls on the family. Chan (2011) found that although Asians accept this responsibility readily in part due to Confucian values, our culture also trains us to ‘save face’ and develops in us a guardedness when it comes to illness within the family.

“The fear of reporting unfavorable things about oneself might prevent family caregivers from discussing their difficulties with people outside their family, thus preventing them from seeking help,” says Chan. The isolating effect of having this attitude, particularly towards stigmatised mental illnesses, is conflated with the chronic stress of caregiving.

It’s almost impossible to cope without social support. But even with social support, it’s hard to communicate the anxiety you have to deal with on a daily basis to people who simply don’t have the same experiences.

As an acquaintance once put it, “You need someone who gets it.”

But don’t we all get it? We are all getting older, and we’re all dying- some of us just more quickly than others. The imminence of death is more pronounced to those who witness the effects of aging on a loved one. Everyone else can choose to look away.

When my grandfather died, I was far away in Mexico on my exchange programme. Incidentally, my housemate Nureen found out that her grandfather, too, had passed away just a week or so before.

While she had a close relationship with her grandfather, I did not. So, as cruel and cold as it sounds, I didn’t have to confront the idea of death. I could look away.

But that morning we wept together, though the roots of our pain differed. She cried for the departure of the old man she loved very much; I cried only for my own absence at the time of departure.

I cried because I wasn’t there for my mother who went into shock as the nurses rushed her father into the operating theatre or for my grandmother who collapsed in tears at the news of his death or for my brothers and cousins who spent sleepless days and nights at the wake trying to keep it together. Mine was a pain laced with self-pity, soddened with guilt.

Bereavement was transformative for me in two ways. One, it offered up an honest encounter with the epiphenomena of death like never before, because the way we usually see it is dressed up in euphemism or contained within a hypothetical realm. This was both oddly underwhelming and deeply troubling, like watching a horror film on mute. Everyone seemed to have a part of them switched off, like the tragedy had pulled the plug on a little compartment in their hearts, now pending a reboot.

Two, it rattled the core frame of my sprawling social network, and forcefully shook down all the excess. In the wake of its jarring reminder of the mortality of everyone around me was a sparse web of connections illuminated with the few people I could not bear to lose.

My dad is my best friend in the world. When my grandfather died, he was the first one I thought of.

One of the mistakes I made when I was away that Fall semester was not calling home at all, not until my grandfather’s death. I didn’t get homesick, and I didn’t feel the need to update my family about my life. But when I got the text that told me that Gong Gong was gone, it dawned on me that my family will not always be there. There will be a day that I lose my parents, and it may come when I least expect it. After all, my grandfather was in perfect health up until the incident. It was then that I knew that I had to rethink my plans to pursue graduate studies overseas. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I went away and something happened to my dad or my mom.

I talked about the fear of leaving Singapore a few weeks ago on this blog. Beyond the fear of losing physical familiarity is losing the ghosts of the people I love that reside in those safe spaces- in the Psych Labs which Janey and Gaurav and Adam and I would use as our personal homeroom, along the roadside of Salt Tapas Grill and Bar where I’d wait for Chyn to end her shift, on the parquet floors of Daryl’s cluttered study room spent talking about conspiracy theories and turkey dinners, or in the crisp 5 a.m. air before a morning run with my dad.


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