Sun, 28 May 2000

Getting old is unavoidable, but not a crime

Elderly people face complex hidden problems. The Jakarta Post's contributor Mehru Jaffer reveals the facts in conjunction with the National Day of the Elderly that falls on May 29.

JAKARTA (JP): Once upon a time Arifin Hardgakusuma was a fairly affluent businessman. He owned a leather factory in Jakarta. He was able to afford an education in the Netherlands for his younger brother and he traveled to the USA.

As he grew older, Arifin lost his wife and sold his business. He could no longer find a servant loyal and loving enough to take care of his home. Eventually the 80 year old Arifin lost, along with his teeth, the capacity to dream. After every flower and fruit of love also vanished from his life, he was left with little choice but to pack his bags and head for Ciputat's Hanna Home in South Jakarta, where he has been living with 62 others like himself for the past six months.

His 25-year-old daughter visits him sometimes. Arifin blames nobody for his fate in the autumn of his life. "The world has changed. Life is so hectic. Nobody believes in staying at home anymore. The father, mother and children all go their own way every day. They seldom meet, they seldom talk. It is all so different from when I was a child," says Arifin who spends much of his time reading the Bible, newspapers and books in the Dutch language.

Imagine yourself also with whitened hair, desires failing and strength slowly ebbing away. When that happens would you like to be stored far from the comfort and familiarity of your own home in a ghetto, no matter how golden? If the answer is no, then try not to do to the elderly what you would not like done to you in your old age.

Perhaps all those living in the fast lane and in the prime of their youth today forget that one day they too shall be little more than shriveled-up creatures too weak to be on their own.

"There is a denial of the personhood of age because people cannot bear to think that they will ever be one of those dreary, decrepit, senile, smelly, isolated, lonely, incontinent, childlike elderly," Betty Friedan, feminist fatale and author of The Fountain Of Age once said.

After having spread the mystique of feminism around the world for over three decades, the fiery Friedan, herself an aging American, is deep into researching the mystique of age.

At a New York conference entitled "Who is Responsible for My Old Age?", Friedan is quoted as saying that an imminent breakthrough in thinking about age will catalyze a new movement for social change this century comparable to the youth, black and women's movement of the last 50 years; and it will look at age, not as a decline from the youthful peak but on its own terms...requiring new concepts of family...of housing, education, recreation and medical care as well as new economic and social policies.

In the meanwhile, stories told by those already working with the gray population here about the way some of them are treated by younger members of their families have a stranger than fiction ring about them.

Mrs. Daud Palilu of the Karya Kasih home in Central Jakarta tells the tale of Siwabessy, an elderly spinster who spent an entire life taking care of the three children of her sister who, along with her husband, perished in a road accident.

Once the orphans were educated and gainfully employed they left for the Netherlands. Only a few weeks later, after the abandoned elder was admitted into the home, she was found dead in her bed with a scarf tied tightly around her neck and a suicide note beside her.

Siwabessy is yet another inmate who was brought to the home by a young man who said that he was just a concerned neighbor. Later it was revealed that he was adopted by the childless Siwabessy and brought up like her own son. Once her husband died, this "son" asked Siwabessy to live with him in Bandung. Later he returned to Jakarta and sold off Siwabessy's family home in Menteng and pocketed all the money. He then escorted his "mother" to the care of Mrs. Daud and disappeared.

Anna, 73, has been at the Hanna Home for nearly a decade. Childless Anna lost her husband 25 years ago. For a while she lived by herself. She has two brothers in the Netherlands and one is a doctor at the Pondok Indah hospital but they don't ever see each other. She is very happy in the home where she helps doctors who visit the polyclinic twice a week. The only thing that bothers her now is the terrible headache when her blood pressure shoots up. Then she closes the door to her room and sleeps off the pain.

"I may have nobody today but I still have my god," says Anna whose favorite person is a niece living in Grogol. She may visit the niece once in a while but she never misses the service at the church every Sunday.

Jenny, 68, is an unmarried sister from an affluent Palembang family with businesses in Singapore. She lived with some nieces and nephews in Jakarta till she had a fall recently and found it difficult to walk. She is happy to be in this home as she no longer feels like a burden on anyone. Although aging in the familiar comfort of one's home is an idyllic option rather than being in an institution, there is nothing worse for people like Jenny than the feeling that at their age they must live on the bitter bread of dependency.

According to Mrs. Daud, homes like her own are not really the answer to the ballooning population of the aged. She is more in favor of home care where social workers go to each neighborhood and organize better living conditions for older people within their own environment.

At the moment different non-governmental organizations are running some 55 home care centers around the city where food, medical care and in some cases even shelter is provided for over 4,000 people. "The city is roughly divided into 300 neighborhoods and we have only 55 home care centers so you can imagine how much more work is required," Mrs. Daud told The Jakarta Post.

Although there is no well defined national policy to improve life for the elderly, without the 16 homes situated in different parts of the city, life for the old and weak would only be worse.

Father Chandra Udaya, who supervises the Hanna Home, says that all those who are not younger than 65 years and able to pay Rp 350,000 per month are eligible to stay at the premises that sits on sprawling grounds landscaped with pretty paths meandering in between many trees, flower beds and a chapel. This place provides the elderly not only with a roof over their head but also with a more vibrant social life and, above all, security.

The eldest at the home is a 97 year old and the youngest one is 68 years old. Asked what it felt like for a comparatively younger person like himself to be surrounded by such elderly people, Father Chandra said that he is aware all the time that this is his future too.

"I would like to be treated with love and respect when I am old, the way I try and treat the inmates of this home," he said.

Is that too much to ask for a group of people whose only crime is that they have grown old?