Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Navigating old age with my friends

Recently, when I was on a visit to Shanghai, I seemed to see lots of old ladies out on the streets, taking a stroll together, stopping to chat, or just hanging out. Maybe it was the time of year, at the end of summer when there was a nip in the air and everyone seemed to want to catch the last warming rays of the sun. Or maybe it was just me, being acutely conscious of my impending old age and wondering who was going to be around to make the journey with me through our senior years.

I come from a pretty small family. My parents are gone and my remaining siblings and I are not all that close ( I haven’t seen my brother, who lives in the same city, in almost three years!). My only child and son, B, lives in another country and while he assures me that I will always have a home with him and his family (when he gets around to starting one) when I no longer feel capable of living on my own, I have maintained that I want to live independently for as long as I can.

I've always admired couples who grow old together. Not only do they get to lean on one another for support, but they also have a lifelong friend with whom to share meals, trips and experiences with. But I don't have that spousal support, and many have to head into old age alone when their spouse passes before them.

In an Asian society, and especially in Chinese families, it’s a given that our elders will live out their last days with their children. It’s all part of our culture of paying respect and taking care of our own. But with everything that the 21st century has brought with it - children living far away from their parents, smaller homes, and generally the older generation who wants to be more independent - fewer and fewer seniors are actually living under the same roof as their children.

In western societies, the notion of moving into an aged care facility or retirement community is common, and I’ve seen wonderful complexes which boast world-class facilities, just like in a holiday resort. It’s catching on in Asia as well, and I imagine that in a few years’ time, I will have some pretty decent ones to choose from, although how I’m going to pay for it is another story.

In the meantime, I guess my friends and I will just have to look out for each other. I’m a loner by choice, quite happy with my own company and able to go for days without actually talking to anyone else. There always seems to be plenty for me to do by myself at home.

But I do enjoy the times when I do get to meet up with close friends, taking holidays together, playing mahjong or just having a meal. It’s an opportunity to catch up on the news, ask about mutual friends, share common interests and always, always have a good laugh.

I’ve known most of these friends for a long, long time. Some go back to our school days and are among my staunchest supporters and allies. Others I’ve known from work, and are equally dear to me. We’re all pretty much the same age and I can see us still getting together when we reach our seventies and eighties, hopefully. We’ve joked about getting a place together, like the Golden Girls, but in all likelihood, we’ll continue meeting up like we do now.

When my mother was navigating her advancing years, one of her constant regrets was that her friends were dying on her, and there were fewer and fewer of them each year. I can imagine that it can get lonely, especially when your own family doesn’t have much time for you and your contemporaries aren’t around any longer. In fact, at her own funeral, there was only one friend left of my mother’s who came, and she lamented her own loss with my mother’s passing.

I reckon that by having a few friends who are quite a bit younger than I am, I will have enough of them to see me through my old age. I’ve joked with some of them that they are to take me out of the retirement home once in a while to give me a good meal. In the meantime, my old friends and I will just have to look out for each other. At a recent dinner, when my friend SY and I had to make our way to the restaurant across some uneven ground and an even more treacherous drain, we clutched at each other to make sure neither of us fell. We joked about it then, but just as these old ladies in Shanghai seemed to lean on one another on the street as they walked and talked, I’d like to think that my girlfriends and I will be able to do the same.

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