I still remember the flash of irritation each night when I’d find food waste on the floor around the garbage bin. I am not sure but I must have snapped at Amma (mother) quite a few times for making a mess.
Then came a day when realisation dawned – she couldn’t bend down enough to neatly dispose off the food remains in her plate.
We see what we want to see. Worse, we are quick to jump to conclusions and pass judgement.
Whereas what is really needed is to look beyond into a person’s heart and soul to really understand what’s going on.
I was the caregiver for Amma through 6 long years when we battled her breast cancer, bone cancer metastasis, damaged kidneys, a heart condition, diabetes and what not.
Through those years if there was one thing I came to realise, it was this.
What mattered most to Amma was her dignity.
When I realised that, I stopped trying to control her every move and allowed her to do what pleased her.
It was difficult because it increased my stress levels. What if she hurt herself in the kitchen? It did happen on a couple of occasions – her arm got burned when it brushed against a steaming hot vessel.
It was inevitable given her unsteady feet and hands. But even that did not stop her from making her unsteady way into the kitchen.
Neither did I put a stop to her activities. Because I realised that it made Amma happy to still be useful. You can read a bit about her cooking in Tummy, Yummy, Mummy!
That is the point in main that Dr. Gawande makes in his book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.
Here are some significant quotes from the book, which should tell you what the book is about and why anyone with an ageing parent should read it:
We end up with institutions that address any number of societal goals – from freeing up hospital beds to taking burdens off families’ hands to coping with poverty among the elderly – but never the goal that matters to the people who reside in them: how to make life worth living when we’re weak and frail and can’t fend for ourselves anymore.
Medical professionals concentrate on repair of health, not sustenance of the soul.
The battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one’s life – to avoid becoming so diminished or dissipated or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were or who you want to be.
Spending one’s final days in an ICU because of terminal illness is for most people a kind of failure. You lie attached to a ventilator, your every organ shutting down, your mind teetering on delirium and permanently beyond realizing that you will never leave this borrowed, fluorescent place. The end comes with no chance for you to have said good-bye or “It’s okay” or “I’m sorry” or “I love you.”
People with serious illness have priorities besides simply prolonging their lives. Surveys find that their top concerns include avoiding suffering, strengthening relationships with family and friends, being mentally aware, not being a burden on others, and achieving a sense that their life is complete.
We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive.
People want to share memories, pass on wisdoms and keep-sakes, settle relationships, establish their legacies, make peace with God, and ensure that those who are left behind will be okay. They want to end their lives on their own terms. This role is, observers argue, among life’s most important, for both the dying and those left behind. And if it is, the way we deny people this role, out of obtuseness and neglect, is cause for everlasting shame.
I spent over 6 years with Amma before we lost her. I lost count of the number of people who expressed astonishment that I was sacrificing my career and life. All those people kept advising me to employ full-time nurses and go back to leading my life.
Those people were wrong. For the simple reason that sacrifice is something you dearly want and give up. Looking after my mother was no sacrifice. It is what I wanted to do.
I also got to experience a far richer life in those 6 years than I would have slaving away in some corporate job.
I got to spend some real quality time with Amma. I got to know her better. I got to learn from the best – the university of life!
Those 6 years are the reason why I was able to relate so deeply with Dr. Atul Gawande’s book. For instance, I know how upset Amma would get on the couple of occasions when we had to admit her into the ICU. I also know how she would forget the pain she was in when she was amongst family and friends. That observation taught me that ‘a daily dose of life’ was perhaps the best medicine for ill people.
Those years are the reason why I would urge anyone with an ageing parent or a family member with terminal illness to read the book.
Fortunately for my family, we were surrounded by doctors who had a similar outlook to Dr. Gawande. You can read about them in Angels with a stethoscope.
Those doctors continually prescribed that we give Amma a daily dose of life. I learnt from them and they never failed to lend me the courage to do what needed to be done.
“Keep Amma happy,” that’s what they’d tell me.
Just what Atul Gawande says is the ticket in his book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End:
For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens.
#medicine #wellness #ageing #health
Featured Image Credit: Being Mortal – Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande: Book Cover Image by Lata Subramanian