What is Longevity

Reflection piece by Intern, Tan Rong Ying

What exactly is Longevity?
The concept of longevity has long been celebrated and sought after in Asian cultures (think of your relatives singing birthday songs with their brightest smiles on as your grandfather blows out the candles on his large, longevity-bun-shaped cake at his 80th birthday celebration). I ask myself, what is there to celebrate about living till old age when it just means that one will be more prone to diseases and suffering? But, is suffering a necessary concomitant of old age? I am still seeking answers to these questions, but with the various perspectives I have been introduced to during my internship at the Tsao Foundation, I believe that I am now more prepared to answer them.

First off, I realised that one can find meaning in life regardless of one’s situation, health or age. In other words, being ill, poor or old does not and should not deprive one from feeling that ‘life is worth living’. That being said, one’s ‘meaning’ in life does not need to be big, bold, or ambitious. Cliché as it may, it is the little things in life that matter. I vividly recall a video that Dr Chen ShiLing shared during the dementia talk she gave at ComSA Whampoa Centre. In the video, a grandma had dementia and she became increasingly anxious when she could not find her way home after helping her granddaughter buy lunch. She wandered around an unfamiliar neighbourhood until the sun set while her family set out to look for her. Upon seeing her family and despite being in a state of delirium, the grandma only had one thing in mind – her granddaughter’s lunch. Worried that her granddaughter has yet to have lunch, the grandma frantically handed her granddaughter the packet of chicken rice and watched her eat. The presence of her granddaughter and the very fact that she can still help her granddaughter with tasks like buying lunch may have instilled a new meaning at this stage of her life.

Maybe Longevity is not about the age till which one lives; maybe it is about having meaning at every stage of one’s life – knowing what makes life worthy for one to continue living.

As an ex-intern and an avid volunteer in the elder sector, the topic of elder talk and infantilising of seniors has weighed on my mind for a long time. While I enjoy interacting and engaging in activities with seniors, I noticed that many fellow volunteers or even caregivers and staff treat seniors almost as though they were interacting with young children. I once overheard a staff tell a senior, “you cannot throw tantrums, if not I will get angry ah!” and the senior slowly nodded to show compliance. How would I feel if I were in the senior’s place, someone who has lived for at least three decades longer and has accumulated twice the amount of experience, hearing such words from a junior staff? My once glorious, vibrant past now reduced to an overriding identity as a “senior at a day rehabilitation centre”, or worse still, “frail, ill senior surrounded by people speaking to me in high-pitched voices and dragged out syllables”.

What about the activities that the seniors engage in? These planned activities are targeted at honing seniors’ cognitive, motor and social skills. During the colouring sessions, while most seniors were enthusiastic in picking out a variety of colour pencils and colouring within the lines, I observed some seniors appearing nonchalant or simply ‘going through the motion’. Despite their colouring outside of the lines with only one colour pencil, volunteers and staff showered them with praises in dialects, “This is so pretty!”, which almost sounded patronising and well-rehearsed – a response formula that can be used on every senior, regardless of the end product they present. It reminded me of eager three-year-olds whose parents commended them for obeying instructions. Do seniors really enjoy these activities? How do they feel when they are treated as children or people who ‘need help’? From the perspective of a fairly-healthy, 23-year-old, if I were the seniors, I would feel inadequate and incompetent, struggling to straddle between my self-concept and identities that have been thrusted upon me as I age.

Maybe Longevity is about having the freedom to construct an identity, getting others to view oneself according to this self-constructed identity, and having the autonomy to decide one’s actions and the activities to engage in.

But, who am I to speak for these seniors, assuming how they would feel, if I was not them? Or maybe my questions and worries were not even valid in the first place. Maybe the seniors are perfectly fine with such treatment and activities. They could even be enjoying it. Instead of getting caught up with speculations and debates without coming to a conclusion, maybe we should simply ask seniors how they truly feel. After all, how would one know how others feel without asking them?

Maybe the question should now be: how should we plan activities that are beneficial for seniors and interact with seniors without potentially infantilising them? I had the chance to pose Ruth Lim, Centre Manager of EPICC @ComSA Whampoa Centre, this question and her response, in my opinion, reconciled the seemingly mutually-exclusive concerns I had. Regardless of how minor the achievement may seem, we still praise them because we want to maintain and build that sense of self-worth and self-esteem in our seniors. While colouring may seem like a simple task, it trains seniors’ hand-eye coordination, utilises their muscles and provides them a chance to interact with others. Further, there are seniors who do not know how to use colour pencils because they never had the chance to experience using them, so being able to properly grip the colour pencils and successfully draw strokes is worthy of compliment. Ruth also acknowledged that the seniors we care for are nevertheless older than us and deserving of our basic respect. There is a fine line between treating them as children and having friendly interactions with them to build rapport – this is a line we should carefully tread. However, she pointed out that some seniors with dementia may have reverted back to the mentality of a child, so we should tailor our speaking, activities and interactions accordingly, without compromising on the basic respect they deserve.

Maybe Longevity is about receiving the due respect that one deserves as a human being and having a sense of self-worth and self-esteem, regardless of the stage of life one is at.

Maybe Longevity is so much more than what I have mentioned above, or maybe its dictionary explanation suffices. But for now, my very attempt at defining Longevity seems to be heading somewhere. Wherever it leads us, I hope it illuminates the path to bettering our lives, our seniors’ lives.


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