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The Geriatric Unit: A Reality check!

I spent the entire day at the geriatric unit of a hospital visiting my grandma. It’s not my favourite place on Earth but it was somehow magical and filled with love.

Grandma is 92, she has a urine bag hanging on her side; she has to walk around with it. She can hardly go anywhere on her own. Actually she can’t go anywhere on her own. I spent the afternoon with her and her roommate and it dawned on me, bam, like a big rock falling on my head, one day I will be them.

We will all be them.

One day, I might be in the geriatric unit of a hospital, left to spend my time in a bed, trapped between four walls. I might be looked upon like a child incapable of making my own decisions, when not so long ago I was the one running the show. How quickly the shift can take place, the very subtle shift from just being old to being old and treated like a child. I see it with my grandma and it’s not fun. It really isn’t.

In a short timespan we’ve gone from lunches and dinners, chatting and drinking wine to, let me carry you to the toilet and watch you do number two. Don’t get me wrong, I feel honored to be by her side in these moments because even though we’re not related, she’s my family. I choose her. What I’m trying to say is that it’s important for me, at least, to let her keep some dignity and a certain sense of decision making. Yes she’s lost a couple of marbles and she’s physically handicapped but she’s a hell of a woman and I want her to still feel that way because I know she takes pride in doing things herself.

I do my best to remember that she’s my elder and as such she doesn’t need a babysitter or someone to talk to her like she doesn’t understand. She doesn’t need someone to look down on her because she’s old and yes, a little senile. She needs compassion, explanations, normal conversations where she can keep some of her dignity. She’s not delusional. She knows she’s in a hospital, wearing diapers. That’s reality. But there’s also another reality, the one where old people don’t exist, the one where we look at them like lost fools. You know what’s beautiful? Her acceptance. Yes she does say growing old isn’t all that fun when you’ve reached her point but somehow, she’s still graceful about it.

The idea that I might end up there one day, sends chills down my spine. The perspective of being in a place like that is gleam… There’s a woman down the hall who screams out for help every couple of minutes.  Strange experience. That being said and oddly enough, I experienced incredible beauty.

First, acceptance; Of old age, of time that passes, of life. The lady sharing the room with grandma put her hands to her head and said I’m 92, what did I do with all those years?  She went on to tell me about her life and stressed a couple of times that I should enjoy my youth and laughed at the fact that our ages were the same, reversed. We were both on one end of each other’s spectrum.

Then, I witnessed love. My grandma’s roomie had a visitor, the lady who takes care of her building. This lady diligently comes twice a week to spend time with her. She doesn’t have to, after all it’s not part of her job, but she does. It just made me so happy to witness such genuine kindness and care. Another example, my grandma’s cleaning guy, Wilson. He comes to visit her twice a week. He’s been with her 35 years and he just genuinely cares for her. He is family too.

This prompted a thought that’s been around for a while; family really has nothing to do with blood. This was living proof. I’m living proof of that. We all are to some extent when we choose people to become our family. The mere fact that we can meet another stranger(s) and create a family together just goes to show that it has nothing to do with blood, but that’s a thought for another day.

That afternoon, we talked and laughed. We shared a couple of travel stories. I was quite amazed to learn that my grandma’s roomie had travelled to India in 1986, the year of my birth.  She talked fondly of the Lake Palace and Indian people; obviously I grew fonder of her by the second. She also travelled to the North Pole and Burma amongst many other places. I asked her what she would have loved to do, work at a bank. You see, she experienced the 1939-45 war. When she was fifteen she started working at her dad’s shop. He told her he didn’t have enough money to pay for both her education and her brother’s so that was it. She worked. Then she got married and had kids.

I saw beauty and resilience in these old people it was such a remarkable lesson in humility and grace. There, in front of me, was a gentle reminder of our Humanity, of the fatality of it all, the end we will all experience sooner of later. None of us are getting out of here alive. There was no sadness in experiencing this realization again. It wasn’t a moment filled with despair; it was real, oh so very real and raw.

I observed a 90-year-old General sitting with us at the dinner table, his life probably a tale for the History books. This man had been to war, lead people to combat, probably killed other beings and here he was, just an old man, deafened by life. I think somehow our brain disconnects them from us in an attempt to fool us. We tend to forget old people used to be young. We forget they are people full stop. They are stories filled with achievements, grief, joy and experiences we cannot begin to comprehend. As I sat at the dinner table with them, I felt profound love and respect for all their experiences, some I hope to uncover on my next visit.

I reconnected with my Humanity that afternoon. They were so happy and thrilled to spend time with me, but really, they did me a favor. I was so grateful to learn from them, so thankful to share a moment of reality and love. It reminded me that we are all connected souls.

And now, as I write this sitting in a packed metro on my way back, two guys are having the time of their lives singing Enrique Iglesias’s hit song Bailando. They have massive smiles on their faces but most people around them are sitting in their shell, listening to their own music, not really paying attention to them. They are beautiful and I’m grateful for their positive energy and love. I’m grateful for the smile they brought to my face.