Being human… being mortal

Arrey, this is not pav kilo,” my mother’s 95-year-old kaki yells to me as she weighs three tomatoes in her wrinkled and deeply furrowed hands. The tarkariwala had just palmed these off to her. He knows that she can’t see very well and thinks she wouldn’t know the difference if he gave her lemons instead of tomatoes. What he doesn’t know is that these hands have cooked more tomatoes than he’ll sell in a lifetime; that these hands have toiled to make meals for her family, her neighbours and their families for decades.

While she may need a walker to walk and an aid to hear, and while there might be no cure for her macular degeneration, some of her mental faculties are crisper than a morning in January when this incident took place. She asks me to run down and check on the taraju that proudly adorns the vendor’s cart, amidst an array of colourful fruits and veggies he’s targeting to sell to the ageing population of Rustom Baug, to be able to make a quick buck. 


I follow her instructions and trot down the green spiral staircase at the back entrance of the home glancing back briefly in my mind at memories of running up and down these stairs all through my childhood. He deftly places the quarter-kilo iron weight on one side and then the three tomatoes on the other, but the pendulum doesn’t centre itself till he shamefully has to place one more tomato into the receptacle. I couldn’t believe it. While I was awestruck at this faculty of hers, I worried for her too.


Stereognosis (stereo = solid; gnosis = knowledge) is the ability to perceive and recognise the form and weight of an object in the absence of visual and auditory information, by using touch to provide cues from texture, size and spatial properties. It is a higher cerebral cortical function that was fully intact in her, while the rest of her body was gracefully withering away—a stark contrast to my generation, where the exterior looks glossy and fit but the insides are wilting.


Suddenly, a tsunami of thoughts washed over my mind. How many of us, today, would fight for that extra tomato that was justifiably ours? What are we doing to help the ageing population of our community and to give them a better quality of life? In wanting to produce more babies have we ceased to ponder over the ‘great unfixables’ of aging?


In another corner of another Parsi Colony, an ageing gentleman is fermenting along with the mould-laden wooden swing that he’s forced to spend his entire day on, listening to the his children and grandchildren bickering. His food is given to him on the verandah as if to say he were an inmate in his own home, and he dare not mention that he doesn’t like the taste or whether he can even altogether taste at all. His only activity seems to be to carry his grandchildren’s heavy school bags to and from the bus stop as they gleefully suck on candy, oblivious to the plight of their senescent grandfather.


Elsewhere, another lady, living all alone in a palatial home in yet another colony, frequently calls on me to take her to the agiary for fear of not being able to cross the road on her own. She, “by the grace of khodaiji”, survived a fall when she ventured out alone. And now overwhelmed by her frailties, is on the constant lookout for a support system, as she has no family of her own in the city. She is not safe to live alone, not safe to drive, not safe to manage her own finances; she is not safe to live at all, really, and is yet condemned to live on. One day, she tells me, “I just want to die with a little dignity, not in a nursing home with tubes stuck into every orifice and someone coming to wipe my bum.” And I was reminded of a famous TV programme where an irreverent physician tells his patient, “There’s no such thing! Our bodies break down, sometimes when we’re 90, sometimes before we’re even born, but it always happens and there’s never any dignity in it. It’s always ugly—always! We can live with dignity—we can’t die with it.”


While some children of ageing parents have dedicated their lives to their parents’ well being, others who have had no choice, having settled in foreign lands, make annual trips and provide monitory support as best they can. While the community has done its bit by setting up nursing and old age homes, are they in all honesty able to meet the requirements of what old people really need? Can we go beyond our efforts to maximise survival and focus on maximising well being?


How can we reclaim a society in which older people are treated with more importance? It is time for intergenerational interactions. We must provide specialised support groups for people affected by ailments that primarily plague the elders of the community – such as dementia and Parkinsons. Young Parsi school kids and Scouts must volunteer community hours with the elderly, accompanying them to the agyari or to do groceries, not on an annual basis but a weekly one. Involve them in artistic and cultural activities – digitize their collections of photos and preserve their artefacts, reserve the best seats in a performance at NCPA for them? Get the senior citizens to have easy and direct access with the caregivers. Have the civic services mend sidewalks of the colonies and the government to fund a project for the old like they have done for Jiyo Parsi. Get doctors like us within the community to make home visits, not just in emergencies but also as a routine.


The elders have also taken responsibilities and made day care centres for themselves, where they get together on a daily or weekly basis, sing songs, do yoga and deliberate on issues to keep them going. We must include them in discussions about their well being offering them what they want, rather than what we think might help them.


Doctor and surgeon Atul Gawande, in his latest book, talks about how medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming the dangers of childbirth, injury and disease from harrowing to manageable. But when it comes to the inescapable realities of ageing and death, what medicine can do often runs counter to what it should. We are constantly preparing for life, but are we prepared to age, and, more importantly, to die?


We need to be more human in being mortal.