My beloved Soo Inn and I are standing at the threshold of the third third of our lives (as Walter C. Wright puts it). It’s a sobering time. There are more years to look back on than there are to look ahead to this side of eternity.
Being part of the sandwich generation, we have both children and parents to care for. Thankfully, our four young men are well on their way to carving out meaningful lives for themselves. And we derive much joy from walking with them and also investing in the lives of those in their generation.
But both Soo Inn’s mother and my father are in the twilight of their years and needing considerable care. Both have been strongly independent people for much of their lives. Mum migrated from Hong Kong to Malaysia as a teenager at the tail end of the war years. Through sheer grit and determination, she worked and studied her way up to being a lecturer in the teacher’s college and Chairperson of her church board. Dad took a slow boat from Penang, Malaysia, to Singapore in search of greater job opportunities. He did his teacher training here and spent the rest of his working life making a difference in the lives of his students. Both mum and dad continue to be remembered by their students, many of whom still keep in touch.
Sadly, both of them have other companions in their old age — dementia, loss of meaningful engagement, restricted movement, and more. But they also have the love of God and family.
I know it grates for them to think of themselves as burdens on us because they’ve always been such capable providers for their respective families. These past couple of years, we have struggled to help them see that they still have a place in God’s working out of His purposes on this earthly plane.
In pragmatic Singapore, the danger is very real for the elderly to feel that they are no longer of any economic value. In fact, many are made to feel that they are a drain on resources. As James Houston and Michael Parker share in their book A Vision for the Aging Church (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011, p. 177),
“Our aging population now reaps the consequences of our seniors having few insights to cope with increasing bouts of sadness, depression and a sense of worthlessness. Perhaps our view of Christianity has been so strongly activist that when one can do very little, the citadel of faith also begins to dissolve.”
The Pollyanna in me sees abundant opportunity for Christians to really make a difference. After all, old age does not rob us of our status as children of God. We’re still bearing His image.
“Yet between the first century and now, little help was given to the helpless, the insane and the other vulnerable categories of humanity. Admonition to love the least of these helps give biblical purpose and meaning to the hard work of caring for someone who might not recognize or appreciate the care. With earlier diagnosis, the church may need to move into position to prepare those affected by the disease and those who choose to be lovingly present.” (A Vision for the Aging Church, p. 189.)
It’s been almost two months since Dad had a fall and fractured his hip. The nature of his dementia (Lewy Body) means that he is confused a lot of the time. And, when not confused, he’s drowsy or asleep. He needs help for almost all his daily living activities. In my darker moments, I ask God the purpose of all this.
When I quieten down my spirit to try and hear what God has to say, I am chastised. Dad has shown me what dignity is. He has shown me how illness and confusion still cannot take away his God-given sweet nature. During his lucid moments, the smile that he gives us, and the nursing staff, is like the sun’s rays breaking through a chink in the storm clouds. The best of God’s image in him shines through — there is no guile and no other emotion than a loving thankfulness.
Dad taught me so much when I was a young child. He’s still teaching me now in my more mature years. His physical and mental limitations are no more debilitating than some of my less-obvious weaknesses.
“The public symbol of the wheelchair remains a form of social apartheid that raises the question ‘what’s wrong with you?’ We do well to recall that we all have disabilities, the most debilitating of all being that we are all sinners.” (A Vision for the Aging Church, p. 174.)
How can we, as a transformed community, make a real difference in a rapidly aging population? We can be friends. We can develop life-giving relationships with those who need care and those who give care. When God said, in Genesis 2:18, that “It is not good for the man to be alone”, He was making a statement about humanity, not just married couples. So it’s in our DNA to need relationships.
For over 75 years, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has been tracking the lives of 268 men to see what makes for a good life. The Study’s long-time director, George Vaillant, when asked what he had learned from the men, had only one response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/06/what-makes-us-happy/307439/3/)
I was once at a talk my author was giving to members of a dementia support group. Their needs were very specific, but my author was giving a very general talk about aging. So there were many questions that arose for which my author had no answers. But other members of the support group did. And the session turned into a facilitated discussion among people who understood each other’s needs and who could then point one another to sources of help. I have a sneaky suspicion this was God’s way of slipping me a heads up. I had no idea then that all I was privy to during that discussion would help me in my journey of caregiving.