Dignity for the old begins in our hearts

Two weeks ago, I wrote about him. (Click here for the story.)

He was in a nursing home in Johor Baru (JB), Malaysia.

Today, I saw him again. He finally returned to Singapore.

He passed away a day ago, in the early morning hours in the JB nursing home.

There were no family members with him when he breathed his last.

He was 87.

On my way home from the wake, I thought about him. I thought I’d write about what had happened but I could not find the words. And then a friend posted this video on her Facebook page:

It’s the 2011 National Day song and video.  The first minute of the video touched me. The scenes are those I can identify with. In particular, the mother – played by Sharon Au – at the sewing machine and on the truck leaving the kampong. My mother used to work on such a sewing machine as well. The popular brand for these machines then, I recall, was “Singer”. And the clip on her and her son on the truck reminds me of my own experience in 1979 when we moved from the kampongs to our HDB flat in Ang Mo Kio. I remember sitting on this big lorry which was filled to the full with all our belongings.

The video reminds me of what my own parents have done – raising 12 children. Struggling to make ends meet most times. In particular, my mother. When my father could no longer work, she had to be the breadwinner, selling “kuehs” at a school tuck shop which bring in a few cents each. She would wake up at 4am and be at the school by 4.30am or 5am and start preparing and making the kuehs, so that she would not miss the morning crowd of students. Every cent counts. Rainy days were no different.

When I think of what parents like mine have done for their children, it is unimaginable and heartbreaking to me that some of these parents would not see through their old age in their own country, surrounded by or at least be close to their children and loved ones in their last days. And this is not the fault of their children. The cost of caring for their parents here in Singapore, like having them sheltered in a nursing home, is just too much for the children to bear.

I think when a country allows its elderly to die alone in a foreign land, we as a people, as a nation, loses something precious.

I do not know how it feels to die alone in a foreign place but I can imagine the utter loneliness, the deep sense of hopelessness, but most of all, the devastating sadness in one’s heart.

And I also can’t imagine how the children would feel. It must be deeply painful to know one’s father passed away in a foreign land, after having done his best to raise and feed his children and do the best he could, for almost 9 decades.

“In a heartbeat” is the title of this year’s National Day song.  My hope and wish for our 46th birthday is that we as a nation put our elderly and their welfare above all else and seek ways and solutions to the problems they face, that we feel once again with our hearts for our fellow elderly men and women.

We must never forget the struggles they have gone through.

Indeed, we must honour these and give and allow them the dignity, peace and gladness to be able to breathe their last in the land they made their home, surrounded and comforted by those they love.

Dignity for the old begins in our hearts.

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