Saturday, September 5, 2020

A BLESSING TO BE A GRANDPARENT


Where the extended family used to live under one roof, today's nuclear family structure means there is no one to care for the children when both parents are out at work. So who do young married couples turn to to look after their little ones? Their parents, of course, especially if they are still active, in good health and, most important, retired.

To a couple with young children, nothing is more helpful than having supportive grandparents who are there to help as babysitters. Young mothers, in particular, can return to work after their maternity leave knowing that their little ones are in safe hands. To them, it is a far better option than leaving their children with a domestic helper or at a day-care centre.

From a young mother of two in 1973 to a grandmother of five in 2014. (Tap on pic to enlarge)

While most grandparents are ready to help out if they are able, there are some who feel they have paid their dues and done their duty as parents. It’s time their children did theirs.

Says one grandmother, 67, “No more changing diapers and dealing with toddler tantrums for me. At my age, it’s too stressful. Sure, if there’s an emergency, I’ll be there. I don’t mind playing with my grandchildren or visiting them, but hands-on babysitting? No thank you."

There are many who share the same sentiments.

On a family vacation in Phuket with Max, 6, and Reiya, 6 months. 
Photo taken in 2006.

On the other hand, there are doting grandparents who love nothing better than to help out with their grandchildren. They are also fortunate to have children who are very appreciative of their help, who do not take for granted their parents' help. When there is understanding on  both sides, grandparenting becomes a pleasure, not pressure. As grandparents, we should know when to offer our advice, and when to stay on the sidelines. Through trial and error, young parents will learn, just like we did when we were young parents ourselves, the best ways to bring up the children.

Max, 2, with my sister. Me and Max in 2018. He towers over everyone in the family.

I recall when my first grandchild was born on 28 August 2000, my younger daughter Belle was at the time helping her husband build his company. After three months maternity leave, she had to return to work. She had little choice but to approach me for help with the baby. Fortunately for her, it was the start of the year-end school holidays. I had two months to enjoy re-living my parenting days, this time as a brand new grandma.

I spent a lot of time (and patience) helping Reiya with her Kumon homework.

But it was a different story when the new school term began in January 2001. I had to start teaching again. My daughter and I didn't trust a maid or anyone else to look after four-month old Max. In the end, to my daughter's relief, I decided to take care of Max full time. The school principal was understanding enough when I requested to teach part-time. I asked for three hours of classes from 7.30am to 10.30am, Mondays to Fridays. My request was approved, and thus began my first year of grandparenting which would continue till today, albeit in a different capacity.

Allie, Max, Hana and baby Reiya. Photo taken in 2006.

My weekday routine for that whole year began with the alarm clock going off at 6.20am. I had to be in school by 7.25am in time for the first class. As soon as the bell rang for the first recess, I would rush over to my daughter's place so she could leave for work. On most days she would return home after 8pm. There were times when there was so much work in the office she would be back well after 10pm. By the time I was back in my own home and in my own bed, it would be close to midnight.

With Ryder in 2014 and in 2020. With him around, there is never a dull moment. 

I was often tired and stressed out from teaching in the morning and looking after Max the rest of the day. Changing Max's diapers, feeding him, bathing him and taking him out for walks in the stroller became the order of the day. In between I had to find time to mark assignments and prepare lesson plans. Whenever she could, my younger sister would drop by in the afternoon to help out. I remember looking forward to her visits. 

From little girls to big girls but always grandma's girls

In 2003 and 2004 my elder daughter Moon gave me two grand-daughters, Allie and Hana. As they were both born outside Malaysia, Allie in Canada and Hana in Singapore, I wasn't able to help take care of them. Moon had to quit her job to be a stay-at-home mom for Allie's first few years. When she had her second child, the family had settled in Singapore. She was fortunate to hire a very capable helper who doubled up as a nanny for both the girls. In 2006, my family welcomed baby Reiya, sister to Max. Reiya made me a happy grandma for the fourth time. In January 2014, Ryder joined the family as my youngest grandchild.

All the children are into sports. Max was a champion triathlete but has switched to muscle building. The girls are into running with Reiya into swimming as well. As for Ryder, he swims, cycles and does jiu jitsu. He excels in all three and more. 

Children grow up so fast. Max celebrated his 20th birthday on 28 August 2020. At 6 feet plus, he towers over everyone in the family. Allie is 17, Hana 16 and Reiya 14, all pretty teenagers. Then there is Ryder, 6, the little rascal and the livewire of the family. He still has a long way to go to catch up with his older siblings. But he is a sprinter as far as IQ goes. Very smart for his age.

The cousins - all share a love of art.

Looking back on those years of babysitting, I can honestly say I wouldn't trade a single day of it for anything. Of course, now that all my grandchildren are grown, I care for them in a different way. Max has just completed his first year in a university in Cologne, studying for a degree in International Business majoring in Digital Management. Allie is doing her A-levels at a boarding school in the UK. Now it's a different kind of bonding altogether. I make it a point to attend their school functions whenever I can, support them in whatever they do, and offer advice if needed. I have to remember not to compare my era of growing up with theirs. Times have changed.

Max looking after his two younger siblings. Ryder adores his big bro and looks up to him. 

There will come a time when all my grandchildren will prefer to hang out with their friends than with their grandma. Indeed, it is already the case now. l miss hearing the pitter-patter of little feet, of hearing my grandchildren squeal with delight and run to hug me when they see me at the front door. I miss their excited cries of "Grandma is here!" That's the sweetest music to my ears. My grandchildren are truly my joy and my blessings.

As for the question - "Are grandparents being taken for granted as child-minders?" Put another way, are grandparents being taken advantage of to care for the grandchildren? I can't answer for other grandparents. For me, my answer is obvious. It makes me feel good to know I played an important part in my grandchildren's growing up years. My two daughters have shown their appreciation many times over, in a thousand and one ways.

I am now in my 70s. God willing, I will see all my grandchildren graduate, and be around still to see them start their own family. With long life and good health, I willI be around to play with my great grandchildren. 

PS: I love all my grandchildren dearly and equally. But each one wants to think he/she is my favourite. 😀 


Sunday, August 9, 2020

A DAILY STRUGGLE FOR THE CITY'S DESTITUTE ELDERLY


Hard times are here, and they get harder by the day. Jobs are scarce and money is even scarcer. For the elderly with no family and no financial support, it is a daily struggle to stay alive. Some have lost their contract jobs due to months of business shutdown. They are desperate to look for any kind of work but who would want to hire a senior citizen even if he was fit and capable?


Since 10 June when restrictions on movement were lifted under the RMCO, I have been spending time with the homeless and destitute elderly in downtown areas like Pasar Seni, Bukit Bintang-Imbi, and Pudu. Their numbers are increasing each day and the queues for handouts keep getting longer.

Is it possible for an elderly to live without a roof over their heads and without a dime in their pockets? Yes, and this is how they do it. Not that they want to, but many have no choice due to various circumstances beyond their control. For some, their plight is of their own making.

Some have families but shame stops them from returning to their homes. Others choose the streets over welfare shelters as they want to retain their freedom and independence.


The street elderly are mostly men. It is not safe for women to be out on the streets at night. So they share rooms in the nearby budget hotels and shophouses. With their meagre savings fast dwindling, they are aware they may have to move into welfare homes soon. Some have family homes to return to but they prefer to stay out the whole day returning just to sleep. They do not want to be an additional burden to their adult children who have their own financial commitments to take care of.


Take a walk in the downtown inner city areas any time of day. You will see the homeless sleeping at bus-stops or on cardboard pieces spread out along the five-foot ways of shuttered shops. Some have set up home under flyovers or overhead bridges. Some beg for alms, others search the trash bins for recyclables they can sell for a pittance.


Those who have been on the streets long enough know where to go for free breakfast, lunch and dinner. On weekdays Kechara Soup Kitchen (KSK) gives out vegetarian meals and bottles of drinking water. Samaritans like Ee Lynn and her friends have pooled their money to provide 100 food packages for their weekly food distribution downtown. There are other groups providing sustenance too. Food is not so much a problem as money.

Inset: vegetarian rice with taufu. Food donated by Ee Lynn and friends.
The hungry are grateful for these free meals and handouts which often include face masks, medicated oil and panadol. They eat sitting on the pavement, next to piles of stinky uncleared garbage with flies hovering around. At night the mosquitoes take over.


While some have marked out their territorial space along the pavements with their belongings, others are more itinerant, dragging their trolley bag of clothes and essentials from place to place. There is safety in numbers so it is common to find them congregating in groups. The solitary homeless elderly is rare.

Taking daily baths is a luxury. They wash their clothes with pails of water sourced from restaurants nearby, and leave their laundry to dry on bushes or makeshift lines. The street corners and back lanes are their urinals. Hence the overwhelming stench of pee that assails the nostrils.


Many community kitchens and NGOs providing free meals before Covid-19 have remained closed. When I heard that Kechara Soup Kitchen (KSK) was open for food takeaway, I dropped by on 15 July with my daughter Belle and my grandson to see how we could help. Ryder, 6, was so touched by what he saw that when he went home, he took out some money from his piggy bank and returned a few days later to give his 'ang-pow' to a 78-year old aunty who collects recyclables to sell. She earns less than Rm3 a day.



I had kept in touch with Justin Cheah, KSK program director, since my first Saturday night food distribution with KSK in 2010. I had written about it in my blog article (The kitchen that feeds all who come). Our chat that morning led to one thing and another, and concluded with SeniorsAloud stepping in to sponsor 436 food packages for the upcoming Saturday night food distribution.

Photo credit: Vivian/KSK
On Saturday, 1 August, a total of 41 volunteers, including myself, Belle and her friends Marie-Anne and Michelle, turned up at KSK at 8.30pm for a briefing before setting out with the boxes of food. The packing had been done earlier that afternoon at 3pm. Each food package consisted of vegetarian rice, sandwich, biscuits, banana and drinking water.


We were divided into groups, each with a group leader. There were seven areas in total: Pudu Market, Chow Kit, Anjung Singgah, Sentul, Brickfields, Petaling Street and Dang Wangi. These were areas where we would find homeless elderly. Our group led by Justin was given Pudu Market. All very well organised, I must say.


The night scene was quite different from the daytime one. The elderly we met seemed tougher and more acclimatised to rugged living. Some were happy to chat and share their stories, others were more reticent. Some were asleep so we quietly left the food beside them. We finished distributing all the packages by midnight.


I have been visiting the elderly downtown several times a week now. I know many of them by name and they are always eager to chat. A sign of boredom? Perhaps. They have nothing to do the whole day.

This is what I have learned about them:
  • The street elderly are very resilient and stoic. They have learned to accept and live with the vagaries of life. 
  • They have developed a strong immune system built over years of tough living on the streets.
  • Some of these street elderly are abandoned by their families. Many are single and have lost touch with their siblings.
  • They have a sense of pride. They want to work and support themselves. They do not want to depend on handouts.

Recommendations:
  • Introduce legislation that supports filial piety, similar to the Maintenance of Parents Act in India, China and Singapore.
  • Set up more old folks homes and welfare shelters for the elderly and ensure they are properly and efficiently managed.
  • Have better coordination of food donation and distribution services to prevent wastage.
  • Establish a skills-based training centre for older people to enable them to be self-supporting.
  • Remove ageism in employment. Older people in their 50s and 60s are still capable of contributing to the economy.
  • Introduce programmes and activities that strengthen family bonding and intergenerational understanding.
  • Promote an active lifestyle so that every citizen will age well. Our health and well-being is our responsibility. Start early. Start young.

(Note: Unless otherwise acknowledged, all photos are the property of SeniorsAloud. Permission is required to use any of the photos featured here.)