Fe Bacalzo lived the good life in the U.S. She was petitioned by her children, found work there, and eventually gained citizenship. All these she gave up in 2004, when she turned 80 and decided to come back to the Philippines.
“I didn’t want to grow old there. It’s lonely for old people like me. My kids are always busy working. There’s no time to talk … because of work. After work they have to cook. It’s sad,” she says.
Fe’s story is common among Filipinos abroad. In their twilight years, they realize that home is really where the heart is. Now 87, Fe lives with her daughter’s family in Cubao, Quezon City, where she is almost never alone. She enjoys regular dinner conversations with the family and counts on two maids to attend to her needs.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), being geriatric starts from age 65 and onwards. It is further classified into three groups: the young old (65 to 75), the old old (76 to 85), and the very old old (90 and above).
Based on 2010 estimates, there are 6.6 million Filipinos in this age range. It’s a challenging phase. On top of chronic diseases like hypertension and arthritis, there are physical, psychological, and social challenges. If not handled well, Catalina Dumlao, M.D., a fellow at St. Luke’s Medical Center geriatrics division, says it could lead to depression among the elderly.
Physically, vision and hearing are usually the first to deteriorate. Daily routines like walking, climbing stairs, or just standing up become a strain. There’s also incontinence and, worse, dementia. Sexual dysfunction is also a source of insecurity.
“These are things that elderly people are usually ashamed to admit,” says Dr. Dumlao.
Socially, the generation gap is also a serious issue, especially with very techie grandchildren. The grandparents who want to spend time and spoil them get frustrated when they can’t even understand each other, much less the gadgets that take up most of their grandchildren’s time.
Psychologically, there are times when they feel worthless because they’re not able to provide for their family anymore. “They were used to working, but had to retire and they are at [a] loss [about] what to do with themselves,” Dr. Dumlao adds.
Above all, sensitivity
Elderly Filipinos have the advantage of our strong family ties, but it isn’t as simple as inviting our aging parents in our homes and assigning them maids. “It is not enough to keep our elderly with us especially if they have special needs. In some families, the primary caregiver is the helper, [who often isn’t] trained to take care of them,” says Dr. Dumlao.
Muriel Gillick, M.D., professor of population medicine in Harvard Medical School, says in an interview published on the WHO web site that in the U.S., caring for the elderly “tends to mean looking for technological means to prolong life … that care should, instead, focus on helping people retain meaning in their lives. Treatment should be targeted at controlling symptoms, not on prolonging life, and on helping patients to maintain human relationships and personal dignity.”
Dr. Dumlao provides readers a general guide:
• Physically, it is important that we assure our elderly that these changes are normal, part of aging and happen to everyone.
• Psychologically, make them feel that they can impart more because they have so many experiences to share.
• Socially, make sure that there is active interaction in the family. Converse with them. Talk to them, not talk around them, especially about prickly subjects like finances. Sanchez shares one example: “This mother was being passed from one child to another. She no longer has her own home. We Filipinos love our parents but [it can be tough] kapag wala nang mahugot [sa pitaka]. This mother overheard her daughter talking to her son, ‘You take care of her naman. I spent P2,000 for her medicines which I was supposed to use to buy a cell phone for my son.’ The mother overheard that and was hurt.”
• Dealing with our elderly requires a lot of sensitivity. Letting them eat in their own room even if someone feeds them, for example, doesn’t stimulate their appetite or help them in any other way.
• “Eating together allows your elderly [family member] to be part of your normal activity. It’s these simple things that matter,” says Dr. Dumlao, who also points out that the key lies in good family dynamics. Parents should teach their kids empathy and help them understand how their grandparents feel.
• To avoid depression, “ask your elderly what they enjoy doing when they were young. If they like to go ballroom dancing, encourage them to continue doing it. If they want shopping, bring them to the mall. Allow them to socialize, bring them out. If they want to engage in sports, let them be. If they can’t anymore, let them be a spectator, at least. Don’t get them stuck at home,” suggests Dr. Dumlao