For the elderly, a little tender loving care is the best Raya blessings they can wish for.
HARI RAYA commercials are one of the things we look forward to every festive season. Most of the ads we’ve seen over the years are things of beauty: Well-produced, quality tearjerkers which revolve around the one thing we all get sentimental about during Raya — family.
Tight hugs, the reunion of estranged relatives and children asking for forgiveness from their ageing parents often mark the end of a commercial, leaving audiences with that bitter-sweet, warm, fuzzy feeling in the pit of their souls.
But there’s also an image of Raya we hardly see on TV — of the elderly spending Raya alone, with only the four walls as companions. Unfortunately, it’s a harrowing reality for many old people and a subject too taboo to talk about in a culture imbued with teachings of filial piety. In all its bleakness, however, there are pockets of people, individuals and groups, who, during this blessed season, remind the silver-haired that they’re anything but forgotten.
“Charity homes aren’t only homes for children. A home like this one is a home for people who don’t have anyone,” shares a caretaker at Mesra Home in Ampang. The home, which at this point houses widowed, unmarried and childless Muslim women, was an initiative of a woman who never had a grandmother. “Being together helps them to forget about their difficult or painful pasts and instead, be merry with like-minded people or people with similar experiences,” she says.
Old folks in homes such as these usually strike a sad chord among us who have witnessed the number of skewered television commercials and one-sided stories in tabloids. It gets worse come festive seasons like the upcoming Hari Raya celebrations, when we see images of old folks abandoned by selfish children. What many aren’t aware of is that not everyone has been abandoned by their offspring. Some elderly people are actually glad to check themselves into a home so they can ease their family’s burden of caring for them.
In the Malay culture, like many other cultures, children are considered gifts or rezeki from God.
“I don’t think people are aware that sometimes some people can’t have children. And many of these women here are often judged for not being married or having rezeki from God. So, they prefer to be here, away from a society that is constantly judging or questioning them.” the caretaker confides.
She shares that many of these elderly folks often have children who can’t afford to keep them as their ailments increase with age. “Sometimes we need to understand that some families don’t choose to place their parents in homes. We’ve seen cases where an elderly person needs someone to be around to be their constant caregiver. With the cost of living rising every year, both husband and wife have to work to support their own families. It’s not surprising that many turn to nursing homes to ensure their parents get the proper care.”
ONLY THE LONELY
“I think invisibility is the most common trait I see in the elderly people who come here,” says Jocelyn Lee who runs Pitstop Community Cafe in downtown KL. “There are many who perceive that old people are of no use.”
She reveals that many of the urban poor and homeless who have their meals at the cafe comprise the elderly. More often than not, Lee points out, a majority of them are seeking to fill more than the void in their tummies. “Many are lonely so a place like this gives them a sense of community. They love it when people are there to talk and listen. Even for those who come to volunteer to help out at the cafe — it gives them a purpose.”
Social activist Syed Azmi who’s worked on various projects across the board echoes Lee’s sentiments. “A lot of things are routine for old people: What time to sleep, eat, take medication etc. From what I’ve observed, they’ll do anything to have someone to talk to,” he says.
For the folks at Mesra Home, there’s a dynamic between the old women and the young people who volunteer. “It’s funny because the people who volunteer their time and efforts here are people who have no parents. Some of them are orphans and for others, their parents have passed away. So they sort of ‘adopt’ the old folks in the homes as their parents and care for them like one,” says the caretaker, adding that one young person even chose to have their wedding reception at Mesra Home.
“Many feel charity homes are all about donations. But you don’t even need to donate if you can’t afford to. What these old folks need is a little cheer and people to talk to — simple actions like keeping them company, decorating the place, cleaning and helping out in the kitchen would be enough to bring them joy.”
A happy home during Raya would sound like the norm, but for most of the women at Mesra Home, the joy of Raya is a relatively new one.
Jamilah, who used to live in a predominantly Chinese village in Ayer Keroh, Malacca, shares: “My home was the only Malay house in that village. Raya celebrations weren’t that exciting because my family was poor and the only time it felt festive was when my Chinese neighbours came to visit and ate what little we cooked.”
She confides that she never quite had the family bond so many are lucky enough to have, but here at the home where she has made friends she considers family, she finally feels the spirit of celebrating Raya.
Another elderly, Inon Rafidah, also known as Mak Long, and the resident ketupat maker, is similarly glad for the simple Raya celebration in Mesra Home. Although she has no hopes that her siblings, nieces and nephews will come to visit her during this festive period, she’s glad for the company she has in the home and loves the simple chit-chat she gets with the volunteers who visit.
“During Raya when these volunteers come by, it’s like they have kids, and the kids have their parents,” recalls the caretaker.
“I used to stay alone with my pet cat and pet rat,” shares Mak Lang, an ex-civil servant who has been in Mesra Home for one year. “Here I have caretakers to tend to my needs, friends to talk to and the best part is, when it comes to the time to eat, there’s food!”. The 68-year-old is bipolar and suffers from arthritis. “Previously, I’d go back to my sister’s house for Raya, but now I prefer to just stay here because I don’t want to disturb them.”
Raya for the elderly, however, isn’t only spent in homes where there are Muslim patients. “We don’t have Muslims staying here at the moment. We have mostly Indian and Chinese elderly folks here,” shares Christina Samuel of Christina’s Home Care in Petaling Jaya. “But we’re all Malaysian so we’re quite happy to partake in a majority of the celebration of Raya too,” she adds, smiling. “Every Raya, the elderly folks here will take part in decorating the house and then we’ll have a small makan-makan here for them,” chips in Mike, Christina’s son who helps her run the home. “They’re quite happy to take part because it keeps them occupied and makes them feel useful.”
STROKES OF HOPE
“A good friend of mine, Suzanne Lazaroo read something on social media about how some of the elderly have no one to spend Raya with so she wanted to bring some joy to the less fortunate during the festive celebrations,” shares freelance writer Barry Westerhout, in reference to a trip he and 12 other friends of different ethnic and religious backgrounds made to hospitals across the Klang Valley last Hari Raya.
“We decided that we’d visit the old folks in the hospitals. That led to discussions about what would benefit them,” he says of the selendang (shawl), neck pillows and toiletries they brought over for the elderly.
He continues: “When Suzanne put forward the suggestion, I immediately agreed. I believe it’s easy to take even the simplest things for granted, like having a family or close group of friends to enjoy our respective festivals. Not everyone is as lucky, and the thought of these less fortunate people feeling lonely during a time for celebration (due to illness etc) was just not right.”
“I notice that a lot is done by introverts who don’t share the good they’ve done,” says Syed Azmi. “It’s not about publicising or marketing what you did but the more people do it, the more they can inspire others to do the same.” He feels motivated that many groups or non-governmental individuals are getting involved in helping marginalised communities or rooting for causes.
“You don’t have to have a lot of money or belong to a group or association to make a difference. As for the elderly? It matters that we treat them right because one day, you and I are going to be old, right?” he says, throwing a rhetoric.
This Raya, Westerhout and his friends are going to visit another home for the aged in KL. He describes his past experience as humbling, exhilarating, somewhat depressing and uplifting all at the same time. But the one thing that will keep people like him doing this year after year is seeing the sincere, heartfelt look in the eyes of the elderly.
“The patients themselves were all smiles and thanked us with genuine sincerity. That definitely left us on a ‘high’,” Westerhout confides, before concluding: “It felt like they knew that they were remembered, and that someone cared about them enough. And that they mattered.”
Maybe reality can leave a bitter-sweet, warm, fuzzy feeling in the pit of your soul after all.