When my grandparents got old, they could count on having at least one adult child living with them full time to help them cope. Not so with my parents. Given that neither I nor my siblings could move to the town they live in and they had absolutely no intention of moving in with any of us, they have had to make do with the next best thing to a child living at home — a wi-fi connection and a Skype account.Over the past eight-10 years, as our parents grew older and more frail, my sisters and I have bumbled through the journey of looking after them from afar. Here are some truths about the wonderful yet heartbreaking process of parenting the parents that I’ve learnt along the way:
Getting old sucks, but it sure beats the alternative, which is dying tragically young. All of us whose parents are now old and frail are incredibly blessed to have had them for so long.
There are three roads that inevitably converge in the lonely woods of your life. They are called ageing parents(yours), young children (yours), and approaching middle age (also yours). The only way you will be able to handle this convergence is through a healthy dose of optimism, panic, cluelessness, and immoderate amounts of alcohol.
There isn’t a day when you are declared officially ready and grown up enough to actually look after your parents. You will fall accidentally into parenting them — one day, you will be heading to their home to drink beer with your father and eat your mother’s excellent biryani and then the next day, that will seem like a dream from someone else’s life.
A stage will come when you will be talking to the family and the doctors about the best care for them and you will realise people expect you to have all the answers. You won’t. You might not even know the questions. The terrifying truth is that there is no single correct answer. The saving grace is that there are no absolutely wrong answers either.
As they grow older, parents will lock and double lock everything. The keys from one locked cupboard will be placed in another, under the stack of shawls. The shawl cupboard will also be locked and the keys from that will be placed in the box in which every wire from every electrical appliance that has ever entered their home for the past 60 years is kept. What this means is that if your mother forgets her handkerchief, you will have to wait for 12 minutes while the protocol to unlock and then re-lock and double lock Fort Knox kicks in. Do not roll your eyes at them and talk about how they have nothing to steal. One day, you might inherit the only surviving cable in the world connecting a VCR to a TV and some mad collector will pay you millions for it. And then how happy you will be that it was always double locked to safety!
If you look closely, you will realise that your parents have not thrown away anything since 1975. The best way to deal with this is to not look too closely.
Your parents will inevitably combine the nobility of Mahatma Gandhi with the fascist tendencies of the dictator of a tinpot African country when dealing with their staff. Hand out tips liberally to people who look after them whether you believe they deserve it or not (They do).
Parents are incredibly generous, so handing out wodges of their hard-earned cash to you or their grandchildren will come easy to them. But this generosity will coexist with the urge to save money in every other way — my mother has steadfastly refused to buy calendars since 1967. To my eternal mortification, she has harangued the manager of Punjab National Bank to give them to her for free. (“My husband has had an account with you since 1954, surely we deserve a few calendars…?”)
If either of your parents develop dementia, enter their world, they are no longer capable of entering yours. So if they ask you the same thing seven times in one afternoon, answer them seven times. Saying “I just told you, how could you forget?” is the exact same thing as saying “I told you not to have pneumonia three times and you’ve still got it?”
There will always be a sibling in America who will have an expert opinion and a contrary treatment protocol on whatever ails your parents. When the urge to throttle said sibling overtakes you, think of George or Amal Clooney or whoever rocks your boat.
There will inevitably be talk of poop — colour, consistency, shape and form will all be feverishly discussed. The older they get, the more obsessed they get with it. Just a heads up.
Finally, it will always come down to making choices. And if you ever have to choose between being efficient and being kind to your ageing parents, pick kindness every time. And when in doubt about what to do next or even your ability to parent your parents, remember this most excellent advice from the Beatles, “All you need is love.”
Because it’s true.
Because it’s true.
Vatsala Mamgain is a glutton, cook, runner, tree lover, shopper, reader, and talker