Asian deference might have crippled the relationships we could have had with senior citizens. From a young age, we are told first and foremost to respect our elders—perhaps even before loving them—and then there is a wide berth drawn around respect that might lead to a certain distancing, even if there is warmth.
Doting grandparents may yet transgress this distance of course, but this interstice is more difficult to broach in non-familial social situations. Perhaps this does not come into play that often, but I love speaking with senior citizens, and forming actual friendships with them. Yet the notions of respect and deference often mean that senior citizens expect to be treated more delicately, when I imagine relations on more equal footing—isn’t that more due respect? If I truly want to hear your thoughts, and not have us coddle each other with ingratiating niceties?
Yet when an old lady friend first asked me out and confided in me as a friend, I was startled. We were arm in arm when she told me in Mandarin: All a man wants, is to sleep with you. Then she bought me curry chicken and we talked about life. She rented a shophouse I passed by daily on my way home, selling soymilk and beancurd, and we’d struck up a conversation when I saw an imprinted porcelain plate of her as a bride hung on the wall by the soybean milk tank. Eagerly, I enquired as to the technical process and production of said plate. I too wanted my picture—or my lover’s—imprinted on such a plate, though I was—and am—not interested in the institution of marriage. Thus we began talking about marriage and feelings, bits and bobs of conversation over several months. When her lease was up she asked for my number, and I gave it to her. She called me a week later and asked if she could take me out to eat curry chicken.
I went home from the curry chicken date reeling from things she said, things about life the jejune seventeen year old I then was would never understand. Awhile later I was unbearably touched she’d confided in me as an equal.
On the flipside, I also had a sewing teacher who was intent on keeping that berth of deference. Amiable though she was, she found it necessary to impose her opinion on my dress patterns, and she expected my natural deference to her opinion, because I was young. Yet she allowed the older students (those closer to her age, mid-sixties, or older than her) to do as they pleased. I adored her to bits but I was sad that I was not allowed to create a strange double-peter-pan collar for a dress I was drafting because, in her opinion, it wasn’t appropriate, and I had to respect her opinion simply because she was older, when I was paying her to teach me.
In my last year at school, two friends and I decided to make a documentary concerning senior citizens’ views towards love, sex and intimacy. Out of our six interviewees, five of them were complete strangers we picked up hanging out at void decks in the vicinity of the Kreta Ayer area. In a country like Singapore, this was no mean feat. Yet once you posture yourself—sincerely—as an individual who is interested in hearing the thoughts of senior citizens on matters they are not typically asked about, you might yet be surprised—fancy a moustachioed uncle telling you he once was a sailor and that he had a girlfriend in every port of call, misty-eyed. (I said: Every?) It was friendship when the old lady with curly hair said to me in Mandarin—the interviewer who became a friend she could trust—said into the camera, “Yes, I am sometimes very lonely,” but “I no longer need the love between a woman and a man”.
Studies in the US and UK have shown that elderly people living alone run higher risks of dying—not, as you might imagine, because no one is there to call the ambulance in case of an emergency, but truly, that loneliness and isolation as experienced by the elderly has a physiological effect. The US study that examined the relationship between loneliness and the health of older adults found that over six years of follow-up loneliness was associated with death and functional decline, such as reduced mobility and difficulty climbing stairs.
With the Singapore government constantly reminding us of an ageing population and a “profound and unprecedented age shift” by 2030 with a threefold multiplication of residents aged 65 years and older, it would be timely to begin considering how we—as a younger generation—interact with senior citizens, what senior citizens expect from our interactions and how boundaries and expectations might possibly be infringed with affection extending beyond our immediate grandparents, even as policymakers and economists wrestle with how to contain the effect on the economy, citing Singapore’s ageing population as the “biggest hurdle to its strong economic rebound”.
Beyond my individual micro-observations and the economic/policymaking bird’s eye view, organizations too have been pushing ground: Ageless in Singapore is a social movement working on a policy-inclined level to push for an “ageless” society, whilst on the community arts front, The Necessary Stage has its Theatre for Seniors programme, set up in 2008, where seniors regularly put up productions, whilst the National Arts Council’s Community Arts department spearheaded the inaugural Silver Arts festival last year, with activities and performances ranging from a surreal ballet performance by senior citizens in tutus, to abstract art workshops for senior citizens by local artist Justin Lee, who worked with King George’s Avenue Seniors Activity Centre.
Under the same festival, my creative partner and I had the pleasure of tailoring and facilitating an intergenerational literary workshop, 10 x 10, which paired ten senior citizens with ten youths, writing together, the results of which were compiled into a nifty micro-publication my partner designed. It wasn’t a case of the former narrating their memories to the latter, but an equal-footed collaborative series of exercises. There we sought to bring down those boundaries, and it was beautiful to simply see twenty people sharing intimately as friends. Samuel told Rita about being taught how to say I love you in Malayalam under a void deck: Enniku ninne ishtamanuu. Carena told Diana about her husband (then boyfriend)’s gift of a slide rule on their first date. Erny told Chee Kit about remembering her father playing Deep Purple vinyl on his record player. Nancy told Jing Wei about being a Singapore Airlines stewardess landing in Bangkok and going straight to drink tom yum goong. It doesn’t matter here who the senior was or who the youth was, as I throw out these names and the recollections I was privileged to be privy to.
Yet as with workshops and festivals, as with the current arts administration buzzword that “community arts” seems to have become, no matter how successful the programme or how heartfelt the undertaking, these are but time-specific, and lack an organic continuity. There is thus a need for us, on an individual level, to consider non-traditional interaction with senior citizens we might encounter, an interaction that can bring joy and surprise to both us and them if we loosen our notions of the imagined conventions of conversing with the elderly.
Age is not just a number, though they are wont to say Age is just a number in encouragement to the ageing/aged. Age does bring with it those brittle bones and cataracts; a lived-in wisdom, a wealth of experience. Respect is also paramount, yet I do not see it as tantamount to a quiet, arm’s-length deference. In the intergenerational moments in which hierarchies break down in conversations had and memories shared, when you abandon your own world view to see things the way of someone dramatically older or younger than you, in that moment age is suspended.
I will always remember what the misty-eyed uncle who was a sailor who once had a girlfriend in every port of call said, as the camera rolled, as I asked him about the differences in the needs of a man and a woman: “Woman is like iron. You need to turn on and heat up slowly. Man—man is like a light-bulb. Ting! Go up already!” He made a switch-flicking motion; we all broke out in an uproarious, disbelieving laughter, he rubbed his head ruefully. I wanted to nudge him in the ribs, to ask him about the fuses he blew, the sparks that flew, the hearts he broke with his light-bulb. We were all twenty-two then, sharing a dirty joke, as he gave a cheeky, rakish grin.