I wonder why a perfectly balanced, normal person gets transformed into a cribber and complainer when old age and illness sets in. My experience with people in the last lap of their lives tells me that they become worse than children in their pre-teens and dealing with them can be quite exasperating. My own mother in law was quite a handful. I had two little daughters when she became bed ridden. I had never dealt with anyone so sick and there were times when I’d be at wit’s end. Pickle and rice with plenty of gingili oil was her favorite food item. Being diabetic she was always hungry and demanded food at odd hours. But I am glad that I was young and energetic and it was easier for me to handle her. Anyone who knew my mother in law would swear that she was never like that and it was only illness that made her act the way she did.
I now hear of another dear old lady in her 80s who is bent on making life hell for everyone around her. And I cannot believe what I hear. This particular lady was a very pleasant person till about two years back. She had a pleasant smile and was always good humored. I remember a conversation I had with her daughter in law some 20 years back.
“I really wish my husband was a little more helpful” I said. “He has to be told every little thing. When he sees me buzzing around can’t he just pitch in to help? If I ask him to dice vegetables he sits in one place and I have to give him everything starting from knife and cutting board to a clean piece of cloth to wipe the washed vegetables and a container to put them in.
“Mine is just the opposite” said her daughter in law. “I really wish he’d stay out of the kitchen. He messes up everything and I have to do it all over again.”
Deep in conversation we hadn’t noticed the lady sitting just behind us.
“On the whole, neither of you are happy with your husbands” she said in an indulgent voice. “For that matter, I must admit that I too found my husband ‘not so up to the mark’ on many an occasion. It is these little differences that make life interesting.”
I did not know where to look. After all, it was her son who was being criticized. But the woman bore no grudge and simply laughed it off. She was particularly fond of me and looked forward to my visits. Her grandchildren adored her and daughters in law loved her dearly. I hear that she screams at people these days. Her voice is loaded with sarcasm and no one, including her grandsons who are now married, wants to sit and talk to her. They accuse her of being deliberately difficult. Her daughter in law is now nearing 60 years of age and is herself diabetic. She is unable to stay awake at night but the old lady will not allow her to hire a nurse or attendant even for the night. Even when one was hired for a short while she shooed her off and the daughter in law had to wake up and come for her assistance.
I don’t for a moment believe that old people act funny just to grab some attention. They are perhaps highly insecure and feel left out. Or perhaps their internal system is failing little by little and they simply feel restless and are unable to express themselves. An infant acts difficult for the same reason but one does take a child’s behavior to be part of growing up. But when it is an ageing parent or a loved one in one’s care that throws a tantrum, we lose patience. There is one moving experience I can never forget and I wish to share it with you.
My father in law was hospitalized and his days were numbered. My husband was attending to him in hospital coming home just to have a bath and breakfast. I’d visit the hospital thrice a day, taking my husband’s meals from time to time and also to relieve him even if it was for a short time. The nurse had inserted a tube into his nose for nasal feeding but my father in law perhaps in his restlessness managed to pull it off. Reinserting it would be painful and it was very difficult for my husband to see his father in so much pain. The nurses, for their part, would get angry with him for not taking proper care pf the patient. All this upset my husband and he told a friend of his that he could take it no more and wanted to go home.
"The nurses and doctors are here to look after him. After all I cannot do much and may as well go home." He said.
His friend sensed that my husband was very tired and terribly upset. He pacified him and took him out for coffee. My father in law could not speak but in the 15 minutes that followed, he kept questioning me and all others present with his eyes if his son was upset with him and had actually gone away. I kept telling my father in law that he would not go home and would be back soon. And the relief I saw in his eyes when the son returned cannot be adequately described in words. He looked up to my husband for support and security just as a child would look up to its parent.
I don’t really know why some are patient and others throw tantrums when their health fails. But I do know that all of us going to reach that stage sooner or later and difficult though it may be, one ought to deal with an old person with patience and kindness. We cannot take away their pain or insecurity. All we can do is to treat them with the love and affection that they’ve always showered on us and if due to our busy schedule we are unable to give them the required attention at least let us not be critical of their behavior. Let us accept it as the second childhood in their lives and understand that if growing up was difficult phasing off is not easy either.