Hazy eyes that stare into space

19 Jan 2012By Chua Chern Nee, Singapore

The late Japanese author Ariyoshi Sawako’s 1972 novel “The Twilight Years” (Kōkotsu no hito) dealt with issues of age.

In the novel, when main character Akiko’s mother-in-law died a sudden death, her typically difficult father-in-law became a “person in a trance” (Alzheimer’s disease).

He had, at 84 years old, morphed into a child who needed her constant attention.

He lost his sense of direction and could not remember his son and grandson (though he could somehow remember his daughter-in-law, Akiko). He could not remember when to eat. When his dementia advanced, he could not control his bowel movements and had to wear diapers.

Medical advancements are cruel, wrote the author, because they allow Man to neither fully live nor die.

We will grow old one day.

If we are unfortunate enough to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, will our families view us as burdens that can neither fully live nor die?

At this moment, I think of Aunt.

Aunt has been stricken with Alzheimer’s for a number of years, and can no longer recognise the family members she lives with.

It is as though there is an eraser hidden in her brain that erases her memory bit by bit.

In the past, she had a chatty personality but she soon began to mirror Akiko’s father-in-law where he “used hazy eyes to stare into space; maybe he was hovering in between dreamscape and reality”.

Once, Aunt found herself lost when she went to the market near her home to purchase her groceries in the morning. She started to panic and scurried around the vicinity of the market, tearing up uncontrollably.

How she wished to find her way home!

Thankfully, an old neighbour spotted her before bringing her home.

After that incident, she did not dare to step out of the house alone.

Burden of caregiving

The Hong Kong movie “Summer Snow” (1995) also addressed the issue of Alzheimer’s disease. When the main character’s mother-in-law passed away, her father-in-law started to behave oddly. After a medical examination, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The main character’s nightmare began when she started to take care of her father-in-law.

A Korean friend recounts, “Great-grandmother has Alzheimer’s disease. She lived till she was in her nineties but this was taxing for her caregiver, my grandmother. My grandfather was the typical chauvinist – standing by the sidelines and not doing anything.

“Great-grandmother would defecate everywhere and she would smear her excrement on the walls. No amount of air freshener could mask the pungent odour that filled her bedroom. Because Grandmother was the only caregiver and had to carry the burden, she once lost her temper at the clueless Great-grandmother. There was one instance when Grandmother suggested sending Great-grandmother to a nursing home. The family vehemently disagreed – it was an outrageous sin and it would not be filial of them to do so. But they were only good at paying lip service without lifting a finger to help alleviate Grandmother’s load. Grandmother’s nightmare only ended when Great-grandmother passed away.”

“Medical advancements are cruel,” wrote the author, “because they allow Man to neither fully live nor die.” Did my friend’s grandmother have this thought?

Please let me remember you

Charles K. Kao, the 2009 Nobel Prize winner in Physics for “groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication” was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2004. He has forgotten what fiber optics are but he still remembers his wife.

Even though his condition deteriorated day by day, the former President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, remembered his wife Nancy Davis.

I do not know why but after reading this, I felt extremely touched. It seems that even when they have been emptied of their memories, they still tried very hard not to forget their loved ones. Every day seems to be a struggle to scream the words: “Please let me remember you.”

To die with dignity is a privilege

Akiko’s husband Nobutoshi, when he witnessed the degradation of his father, thought, “I hope I die before such an illness strikes me”.

People hope that they can die with dignity but unfortunately, life does not work this way. No one hopes to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

As our population ages and medical advancements are made, our life expectancies increase.

But if you are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, it does not matter if your life expectancy increases because you are “dead” inside once the illness erodes your brain cells.

One day when we are old and our hair is white, when our memories have been emptied, would our children follow in the footsteps of Akiko’s only child Min, who said, “Dad and Mum, is it possible for the both of you to not live such long lives?”

Life’s sorrow and helplessness is displayed in such a cruel and heartless manner.

When a nonagenarian died without illness or pain, not only were his aged friends not upset, they were envious that he was able “to live till 90 and die without illness or pain”. To them, it was a joy.

Yes.

It is a joy.

This piece was first published in Lianhe Zaobao. Chua Chern Nee also wrote Please Let Me Remember You for Before We Forget in January 2011.

Translation from original Chinese article《恍惚的人》to English by Fanny Koh. Photograph by Lee Xian Jie.