In Darkest Domestica

In Darkest Domestica

I don’t do much housework in Bali. I am not naturally inclined to it and besides, Wayan Manis doesn’t let me. When I make my own bed she shakes her head and does it again, with neater corners. She refuses to show me how to use the new washing machine. And she’s been known to hide the broom on me, which is inconvenient when she disappears for days to attend ceremonies.

Things are very different when I go to Canada to visit my 94 year old parents. My father is in a care facility now and my mother still lives in their apartment with her ancient cat. During my stays I wash dishes, do laundry, stock the freezer with nutritious meals, drive between the two residences, clean the cat box, make beds and pick up all the bits and pieces that end up on the floor because Mama lives in a stronger field of gravity than most of us mortals. Oh, and second-guessing her ailments. One night she was up with a dodgy tummy. I anxiously reviewed the previous night’s dinner menu, but close questioning revealed that she had eaten half a box of chocolates after I’d gone to bed.

On my most recent visit, my sister Beth and I decided to take this pair of naughty nonagenarians on a trip to her home on the east coast of Vancouver Island. The undertaking was planned with the attention to detail usually reserved for military campaigns. It was in fact reminiscent of preparing for a road trip with a couple of large, wilful toddlers. Six bags of luggage were packed for a two-night trip. Diapers (don’t flinch, we are all going there), favourite blankets, hot water bottles, snacks, drinks, warm clothes, walking sticks, medication and a large bottle of gin were loaded into Beth’s roomy van. We strapped in Mama first then went to spring Papa from what he calls his Velvet Prison. He parked his walker in a corner and chugged through the parking lot as fast as his white cane would allow. (He is always trying to get us to tell him the code to the locked gate so he can go for unsupervised walks.) We were off.

It was a long day of driving and sitting on the ferry, and we reached the house rather weary in late afternoon. This is temperate rainforest country; the trees were dense, the sky overcast and the wind cold. But inside the fire was lit and Tim was cooking a fragrant chicken stew. Mama and Papa were tucked into armchairs by the crackling fire with a large dog and cat in attendance. Cocktails were poured. It was assumed that the elders would catch a nap as they usually did throughout the day. But neither of them snoozed for a single moment during the whole weekend. I think we were all realizing that this might be the last family outing of them all.

Papa was particularly pleased to be out of his safe, comfortable but rather dull care facility. He is legally blind, incontinent, falls down a lot and is occasionally delightfully delusional but on the whole he’s very much on the ball. A modest man, he copes well with his loss of privacy now that his personal needs are being met by caregivers. “This morning I had a shower with a woman whose name I didn’t even know,” he confided during dinner.

Tim roasted a turkey for lunch the next day and old family friends come to share it. Both parents ate like loggers, washing down the meal with plenty of wine. Mama demanded to be taken shopping. Papa was driven to nearby Saratoga beach, where he sat on a log and remembered bringing us to this very patch of sand for a summer holiday over five decades earlier. Later they consumed a large dinner, followed by dessert. They are both so tiny, where do they put it all?

At night, Beth and I took turns to sleep in the same room with Papa, as he tends to wander. I’m an enthusiastic sleeper, so I forced myself to stay awake all night because he was up and about every hour or two, disoriented in this strange environment. At one point I dozed off and woke just in time to intervene as he was preparing to irrigate a corner of the laundry room, having lost his bearings on the way to the loo. A sense of humour is absolutely essential in these circumstances.
And it’s earnestly to be hoped that a sense of humour will survive and thrive as I forge my own path to antiquity. With such robust genes, I might well have another three decades ahead of me. The developed world is struggling to care for its aging population but here in Indonesia the extended family is still the only fall-back. With so many foreigners choosing to retire here, we need to do some realistic forward planning around our own aging.
The medical care in Bali continues to improve, and hip replacements, stents and cataracts can all be dealt with to international standards in Denpasar. But anything to do with gerontology and dementia is still pretty much off the radar.

Since 2002, divisions of geriatric medicine have been established in the departments of internal medicine in all Indonesia’s government universities. But it’s a rare doctor, either here or in the west, who chooses to specialise in it. Old people’s problems are just not sexy. So this rapidly growing demographic (in 35 years, over a fifth of the world’s population will be over 60) is not getting much attention.

I didn’t pay much attention myself, until I had to start dealing with my parents’ aging issues. Then a couple of years ago my own friends started to fall and break their hips and have the aforementioned cataract surgeries, stents and other age-related procedures we thought were for old people. It was astonishing to find that the medical community here considered us to BE old people. That can’t be right. I’m not ready.

I was also astonished and indignant to learn that my medical insurance company, to which I have been writing increasingly generous checks for 25 years, plans to ditch me when I turn 72. After some research I found out that all medical insurance plans have upper age limits, and none will accept new clients after the age of 65. If anyone out there is aware of a plan that will cover hospital expenses to the end of life, please let me know. There are a lot of us looking for something like this.

More cheerful thoughts… our chances of developing dementia are high. See my story Losing the Plot in Paradise for the gory details.

Wayan Manis and I have been talking about all this for a few years now. I’ve built a tiny house next to her compound, and we reckon I’ll end up there when I become really decrepit. She points out that she isn’t getting any younger either, and prefers a short commute.

So here we sit, still feeling pretty frisky, with all these interesting issues ahead of us. We can eat well, exercise, and otherwise take good care of ourselves but the clock is ticking. Keep that sense of humour sharpened and get those domestic ducks in a row. It could be a long ride.

Ibu Kat’s book of stories Bali Daze – – Free-fall off the Tourist Trail is available from :
– Ganesha Books in Ubud, Sanur and
– Amazon downloadable for Kindle

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