TODAY marks the 101st birth anniversary of my husband Andrew who passed on 13 years ago at 99, 40 days short of becoming a centenarian. My small family here (the others are in Canada) will celebrate by recalling some of the passions of his life – his love of music (he played the bagpipes, loved to sing many of the favorites of his generation and mine), his lifetime of service in the cooperative movement, and his gift of writing and storytelling, among many others, by starting to organize his modest memorabilia, mostly of books, Scottish musical instruments and scores, apparel, poems and stories he had authored, and pictures of some of the highlights of his exciting and productive career that brought him to several countries of Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America.
We will have a family dinner at a restaurant that we often patronized and partake of some of his favorite dishes. And recall many of his old jokes and sayings.
Following our good friend Michael Tan’s column on “Sundowning,” let me share with readers my experience with Andrew as his principal caregiver who supervised several caregivers who attended to him 24 hours a day during the six-month period prior to his passing.
“Sundowning,” a term I only learned from his column and after googling, was a syndrome that we observed during Andrew’s last few months. It is usually associated with dementia but can happen even to the elderly who do not have the ailment. It is marked by agitation, confusion, anxiety and happens during late afternoon or night or sometimes early hours of the morning. And it happens when it is dark and when one is in unfamiliar surroundings. With Andrew, he would ask us to wheel him out to the garden and outside the gate, urging the caregiver to push him towards the trees and sunlight. He would complain about the TV set which is too dark, he says. We had a change of mattresses four times during the 6-month period and had a hospital bed later, but he would stay in them for a while, preferring to sleep in the large Lazy-boy which even had to be brought to the hospital during the times he had to be confined. This prompted his doctor to remark that he should perhaps convince the hospital administration to purchase Lazyboy chairs for the rooms of geriatric patients.
But before turning 99, Andrew was still engrossed with his crosswords, cracking joke with nurses and doctors at the hospital (he was once called the poster boy of the hospital), and still pursued normal activities.
Earlier, I explained his longevity to diet which also included yoghurt and yakult and his engaging in meaningful activities which medical science explains as essential in countering effect of the deterioration of our cognitive functions when our bodies get older and our brains shrink. This deterioration results in a decline in memory and mental activity. But mental decline is not inevitable as our brains can adapt if we go through what is called “prefrontal activation,” a process that has given rise to the theory of neuro cognitive scaffolding. This is when the brain adapts by engaging in strengthening existing connections and forming new ones. It is done through physical activity and diet (eggs, ginko bilova, oily fish) that helps our bodies deliver oxygen-rich blood to our brains and slow old age and memory loss.
Since I have reached this stage (in fact, at 85. I am now in what I consider “bonus” years), I try to practice mindfulness and meditation practices and activities that allow me to continually engage with people and activities that keep me mentally active – reading, art lessons and painting once a week, sitting on some six professional and volunteer boards, and writing this column twice a week.
A happier and more productive year to my fellow seniors!