[OPINION] Ageism for Christmas

Last week while driving down a busy avenue, I came across an angry, frustrated 70+ pedestrian and his very aged but mobile mom. I wondered why he parked on the opposite side of the road when it would have been easier for her to get into his car, in front of the frail care home from which he was fetching her. She looked bewildered as he ushered her over the crossing and rolled his eyes at me and the world, as she shuffled toward his car. I know that feeling. The feeling on the face of her son.

This story reminded me of an orthopaedic surgeon neighbour, we had once. He said at Christmas time he is at his busiest. Emergency operations for senior citizens either left alone for the holidays or not being properly cared for by their adult children or designated caregivers. “Everybody is busy in December.”

It is easy to judge the adult children. The fact is we don’t plan to parent our parents in illness or their aging processes. We should. This is a blind spot for many of us and most parents do not want to be a burden to their adult children but some don’t have an option.

Our mum was diagnosed with cancer one November many years ago. The doctor told us she would not make it to see Christmas as the cancer was advanced, terminal and on the move. That turned out to be one of our best and most intimate Christmases with our mother. We all made efforts to be with her, to make sure she had every comfort and to talk and share and hope and love.

She lived for eight more Christmases and as her children, we made our arrangements around her as every Christmas could be her last with us and ours with her. We regarded each New Year as NEW and the possibilities and promise of it was tangible because we lived the year day to day.

By Christmas 2014 our mom was frail, on an oxygen machine and very bossy, I say with my tongue in my cheek now. Back then, I felt like the gentleman crossing the road with his mother. Frustrated, torn between my family, my other responsibilities and the needs of my ailing mother. My three sisters and I were in this together but differently and at different times. This 2014 Christmas we were all together, preparing a feast in the busy kitchen, cinnamon, roasted meats, giggles and gasps filling the passages.

One sister lives in India, so it was a big treat for all of us and our families to gather and to gather around our mom. She sat in an armchair at the Christmas tree and before a big fan, her oxygen machine whirring as the beads of perspiration ran down her neck and her levels of irritation rose. All we could do was be there. About half an hour before lunch she wanted to have her lunch now, on her own. She sat at the table; we served her and continued finishing the festive spread in cheer. As we sat down for a big hearty lengthy catch lunch, she sent messages with the children that she wanted to have a bath now.

We rolled our eyes at each other, bit our lips and the four of us went to run a bath, freshen up a bed and take out her clothes. We helped her into the bath and we sat in near silence bar the swish of the water and the soaping of a sponge to wash her. It was rhythmical and calm. With hindsight we were all actually seething at the inconvenience and inconsideration of it all. What followed was submission and acceptance. We spent about an hour washing her, brushing her hair, calming her down and reassuring her that we didn’t mind, settling her in a breezy room where she lay but did not fall asleep. She was anxious. Within a few hours we took her back to the home where she lived and had 24 hour nursing care. After a few months, this had become her refuge, she took her sleeping tablet as 6pm and wondered off to a safe unreality.

In April 2015 our mom passed away. It was a sacred and peaceful time. As her family, we were sad but we didn’t suffer. We still grieve for her, miss her and think about her every day.

This Christmas time I am acutely aware that on that day when she parented us to feed her ahead of everyone else and bath her while our own families were gathered around the lunch table, we had our chance to be with her. Mother and daughters, for the very last time.

Hindsight is 20/20 vision, blind sight is curable. This festive period, prioritise elderly, sickly parents. In life we will all have opportunities for special, loving people to choose us AND we only get one mother and one father. All imperfect and doing the best they know how. Getting older is not a choice, living to a ripe old age is not a choice, becoming physically dependant is not a choice but choosing your parents as they are and as they are not, is your choice. Choose wisely. I have learned that you can learn from other people’s experiences and heed words of warning and wisdom. We did.

Elderly people force you to slow down, they have stories, they want to be held and hugged and acknowledged and loved with or without the luxuries that come with Christmas. Their needs are mostly ordinary and we can be the difference between a good or bad Christmas. This is a season to give, give of yourself and your time. One Christmas, that will be our Christmas, how would we like our children to include us, accept us and be with us?

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn