Living Well

Birthday party with no friends or cake

My dad's 80th birthday was a muted affair, while my mum cut her own hair. As they adjust to the ever-changing Covid-19 rules, my parents are learning that they are more resourceful and resilient than they think

Two months before my dad's 80th birthday, my sister and I talked about whom we would invite and where we might hold the bash.

That was in early March, before the daily number of new Covid-19 infections here began spiking as Singaporeans overseas made their way back in droves.

I even toyed with the idea of holding a celebration in my dad's home town of Klang in Malaysia so his siblings and other relatives could join us. I thought the milestone warranted us making a special trip across the Causeway.

Then Malaysia closed its borders to foreigners on March 18, the same day Singaporeans were told to defer all overseas travel.

From then on, our party options ran out quickly as the screws were progressively tightened to check the rapid spread of the virus.

So on May 4, my dad marked a quiet birthday at home - one without my siblings, his friends or even a proper cake.

My parents live with me, so they had at least my family for company. But my dismal cooking skills meant I couldn't whip up anything fit for a birthday feast.

My helper made chicken curry, my husband ordered cereal prawn from a trusted zi char stall and my kids and I prepared a no-bake "icebox cake" that was essentially layers of cookies drenched in cream.

"We will have a proper celebration when things go back to normal," I told my dad, even as I wondered when that would be or what "normal" might mean in the brave new world.

Could we ever go back to those pre-pandemic days when we blithely shook hands, tapped lift buttons and then touched our faces without a second thought? Would we ever be brave enough to venture out again without a mask and stand within coughing distance of strangers? I struggle to imagine so.

My dad, though, was his usual upbeat self. "This is good enough. We have meat, seafood... and we are in good health."


ST ILLUSTRATION: CEL GULAPA

The virus outbreak has upended many of his plans and routines. But like my mum, he is grateful just to be in a position to be grateful.

He has friends who are living on their own and finding it increasingly hard to kill time or stay positive. These are the same friends he used to meet regularly for lunch or coffee right up till March.

His plan to visit his sister in Klang after Chinese New Year was dashed when Malaysia's new daily cases began hitting double digits in early February and I convinced him not to go.

Then he was forced to rejig his daily exercise routine - an evening walk-jog around the compound - when exercising within common areas in condominiums was banned under tightened measures.

But like the rest of us, my parents are adapting to the ever-changing rules and revising their schedules as the pandemic rolls on.

My dad now chats with his friends on the phone and spends more time reading and fiddling with the iPad my sister got him before we were all told to stay put.

For exercise, he takes walks around the apartment, sometimes venturing out to the lift lobby, and does more yoga and stretching.

My mum went one better.

When hair salons were ordered to close from April 22, she took the scissors to her long, unruly strands one afternoon - without the need for any YouTube tutorials or even a second mirror to show her the back of her head - and impressed us all with the result. Her new bob was not only neat and even, but also shaved years off her age.

As with many of us, learning to make do during these uncertain times has helped my mum discover that she is more resourceful and resilient than she thinks.

Still, fears of the raging pandemic have been percolating in her mind, though not so much for her own safety. "I sometimes think, how is this going to end? What's going to happen to this world? What's going to happen to you guys and your kids?" she told me one day.

She used to stay with my sister on weekends, but has not seen her or my two young nieces in the flesh for over a month.

The crisis is a particularly scary and isolating time for the elderly. They are the most vulnerable to the disease and what they need most to thrive - social interaction - is also what puts them most at risk.

Change is especially painful for the elderly and Covid-19 has not only turned their world topsy-turvy but shrunk it too. Many don't mean to flout rules - they are just trying to reclaim part of their lives.

We nag the seniors in our community to stay home for their own good. But reminding them constantly of their mortality alone will not help their mental or physical health.

In a recent piece for The Atlantic titled Ageism Is Making The Pandemic Worse, geriatrician Louise Aronson argues that keeping older people alive and uninfected shouldn't be the "only goal for this vulnerable group, nor should it be once the pandemic passes. After all, living in a society that values your well-being and basic humanity matters, too".

The younger generations who feel hemmed in can easily turn to the Internet or tech tools for solace and entertainment. But the digital world is alien to many seniors and the realities of Covid-19 have only deepened their sense of displacement.

Just the other day, my dad came to me almost apologetically for help. He had to make payment for a transaction, which he would normally have done by handing over a cheque in person. But digital banking is now the safest and fastest option - and one he is helpless to exercise.

I did it for him within minutes and got on with my work. The guilt hit when he asked, while I was taking a break, if I could show him how to do it the next time.

Keeping seniors involved and engaged is just as important as keeping them healthy during this period, say geriatrics experts.

"We know that when people are more integrated socially, when they have people in their life, when they have a sense of meaning and purpose, that's good for their overall well-being, their overall health," Professor Julie Masters, who chairs the department of gerontology at the University of Nebraska Omaha, told news website Vox.

I've promised my dad to help him master online banking - that will be my birthday present to him this year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2020, with the headline 'Birthday party with no friends or cake'. Print Edition | Subscribe