Why I Write About Unwilling Caregivers, Elderly Parents And Their Fading Memories

Ageing is terrible. It is also terrifying. It roughs you up - crumples your face like a piece of trash, and messes with your memory, your confidence and your virility. It forces you into dependence.

Poonam Chawla
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The Slow Disappearing by Poonam Chawla
The Slow Disappearing by Poonam Chawla: The first time I was struck by ‘realism’ was in the late seventies. An actress called Smita Patil shook me out of my wide-eyed stupor, reeking of sweat and toil, laying bare her body and her flies-encrusted dreams for all the world to examine.

But once I got past the stark ugliness and the fulvous backgrounds of new wave Hindi cinema, the old, fantasy template - all that ebullient singing and weaving around trees started to look cheesy... even ridiculous.

The second time I had to really look reality in the face was when I finally understood that our parents won’t live forever. And that I was completely unprepared to deal with my changing circumstances.

Ageing is terrible. It is also terrifying. It roughs you up - crumples your face like a piece of trash, and messes with your memory, your confidence and your virility. It forces you into dependence. But it is also timelessly, endlessly fascinating.

Rembrandt’s An Old Woman Reading, is quite possibly one of the most touching tributes to the ageing. In his brushstrokes he has captured both the ordinary – the hollow cheeks, shadowed eyes and veined hands – and the grand. Both the recognisably human and the sublime.

But, for the most part, society chooses to ignore or obscure truthful representations of ageing and - the thread that automatically follows the needle - caregiving.

I write about difficult subjects. I find it is a good first step toward the pursuit of perfection.


Why do I draw away from the noble caregiver to the reluctant one? Because she too is a work in progress. Sandwiched between work and children, caught between her dull duties and clandestine desires, stuttering between her living and their dying, she too is striving for perfection.The caregiver is not a character out of mythology, a villain in a soap, a Florence Nightingale. She is the lady next door. Let us not romanticise her. Give her instead, practical advice and community resources.

In my book, The slow Disappearing, Annika, the caregiver admits in her support group:

“Of course, there are times I'm still happy. I still read, although not at a stretch, binge watch Netflix and invite close friends over on occasion. And there are times when I'm truly grateful. She ( the patient) keeps me humble, you see. Grounded. It is like being allowed a peek inside some future-mirror and nodding to the person one might become, down the road, but then, I hear music drifting from a party across the street or the wind rustling through the trees or a goldfinch rocking madly from branch to branch and I am filled with hatred. For my life. For her.”

One can relate to her ambivalence can one not?

Caregiving can be a back breaking job. Quite literally. Imagine a 120 pound woman, tending to a man twice her size. I have a friend who takes two Tylenols preemptively before she lifts her husband, walks him to the shower, bathes and dresses him.

Caregiving is about applying hemorrhoid creams, fitting dentures and scrubbing piss pots, not to mention fielding countless discussions about medical bills and the pros and cons of medical treatments ad nuseum! In other words, it does not sit well with your romantic plans for Saturday night.


But isn’t it boring and emotionally draining to wax on and on about such matters? You might ask.

Perhaps. But escapism is for children. It is a vacation on a luxury liner suspended far too long between a cerulean sky and a deep blue ocean. At some point one needs to get home. Fill the pantry, dust the cobwebs and get to the grind of living. And keeping alive the ones you care about.

There is a dialog in House M.D. that has always stayed with me:

Rebecca Adler: I just want to die with a little dignity.

Dr. Gregory House: 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! You can live with dignity; we can't die with it!

You are wrong Dr. House. I have seen my mother die. Yes, I have seen her body breakdown one indignity at a time. But I have also seen her spirit rise and shine - transformed like a Rembrandt painting.

We care about the elderly. They stand between us and our mortality. Without the portions of their past tagged on to our body memory we are like stick figures in a child’s drawing - featureless. Forgettable. Uninspiring. And so, I extend the sentiment to the all the elderly folk out there as well as to their caregivers - one that my mother, with a soft murmur and a wet eye always extended to me - “Jeete Raho.”

 Poonam Chawla is the author of the book The Slow Disappearing. The views expressed are the author's own.

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