The pandemic is making us worried for our grandparents
Updated: Apr 25
A composite image of our writers (left to right) Chandreyee, Gwen, Lorraine and Sean with their grandparents. PHOTO: CLASS NOTES
Many of us in the Class Notes team are thinking about our grandparents during this coronavirus pandemic.
The elderly are especially vulnerable, falling severely ill if they get infected by the Covid-19 disease. Many also have underlying health issues that complicate their recovery. Those who have died in Singapore from the disease have also been older people.
With the tightened circuit breaker measures, we are also not allowed to visit our grandparents during this tumultuous time, unless they need help with their daily needs.
Four of our writers talk about how their own grandparents are coping — and why they’re worried about them
My Grandma Is Alone in the Hospital and Grandpa Is Alone at Home
The first thing my grandma said to me over the phone was: “It’s so painful.”
I sat on the other end of the line, wracked by helplessness. As I broke down crying, my grandma assured me she was alright.
A phone call was the closest I could get to my grandma, who had been in the hospital after an operation in end-March. Hospitals no longer allow visitors because of Covid-19.
Her stay was extended because of post-operation complications and she will likely have to remain there for quite some time.
Worrying about her recovery is one thing, another is her loneliness in the hospital. The thought of her enduring the pain without the comfort and presence of her loved ones pains me as well.
Before Covid-19, whenever grandma was admitted to the hospital, my uncles, aunties and cousins would take turns to keep her company so that there was always someone with her during visiting hours. Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand and respect the rationale behind this measure. I guess it’s just unfortunate that my grandma had to be in the hospital during this period.
Grandma isn’t tech-savvy, which is why she didn’t bring a handphone to the hospital. To talk to her, my family has to call the nurses, who would then pass her a phone. When my father first called her, she didn’t know how to use the phone and couldn’t hear anything over it.
Her hearing isn’t good either. Our telephone conversations involve plenty of yelling and screaming, which honestly, wears us down after some time. If only I had taken the time to teach her how to use a smartphone, I could be having a Zoom meeting with her and my extended family now.
Now that grandma is away, grandpa lives alone at home. My aunt wanted him to move in with her but he rejected the offer, preferring the independence. As his eyesight isn’t good, we told him to stay at home and we would deliver groceries to him every few days.
I’ve been calling my grandpa every day to keep him company. He says he’s bored at home and can only keep himself entertained with the television or radio.
Even though my grandparents live together, they are not always on good terms. They are the kind of elderly couple who argue about many minor things daily. Arguing may very well be their form of communication.
Now that they are separated, however, life seems a lot lonelier on both sides. If grandma was home, grandpa would have someone to talk to or argue with. At least, they would be able to keep each other occupied.
I asked my grandpa yesterday if he missed arguing with grandma. He just laughed.
If My Extroverted Grandparents Can Do It...
It has been a tough fortnight for my grandparents who are in their 80s.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, my grandfather would spend hours at the nearby coffee shop slurping his kopi and chatting with friends. My grandmother would do her shopping at the nearby neighbourhood shops or meet up at her friend’s place for card games.
And on weekends, the extended family would gather at their four-room flat in Bukit Panjang for dinner and spend time with the old folks.
All these are no longer possible after circuit breaker measures were announced. The temporary ban on social gatherings and injunctions to stay at home was a death knell to my grandparents’ way of life.
While the rest of the family could fill our time at home working, gaming or making cups of Dalgona coffee, my grandparents have fewer ways to keep themselves occupied. Their daily lives revolve around social activities. They don’t even own a smartphone nor know how to use one (Aiya, don’t want lah, we are too old for this), so you can’t possibly ask them to play games or scroll through social media to laugh at funny videos.
Sometimes I wish my grandparents could be readers like Professor Tommy Koh, who is of the same generation and is spending the time at home reading voraciously. My grandparents are illiterate so they don’t read the newspapers or books. They only flip through the newspapers occasionally… for the obituaries.
Now they are spending most of their time watching the television but I’m not sure if it bores them. The daytime TV shows on Channel 8 are not exactly the most entertaining, and they do not have cable TV installed.
I am concerned for their well-being so I rang them up (no, they don’t use smartphones so video-conferencing is out). It was sad to hear them ask if our family would be visiting them.
Fortunately, they understood why we couldn’t. They don’t read the newspapers, but they tune in to the news on TV and their Rediffusion radio.
Even though my grandparents are Hokkien speakers, they know enough Mandarin to get a grasp of the situation from the broadcasts. It also helped that my family would call to explain certain things to them. But I worry for other seniors who don’t have family members and can only understand dialects. How will they know about the latest circuit breaker measures? Or understand the dangers of the deadly disease?
To the Government’s credit, it has produced a series of public education videos on TV in dialects, like this one which featured veteran actress Xiang Yun speaking in Cantonese.
But I wish it would do more. The videos are only available online and do not reach seniors who are not tech-savvy. They might have been broadcasted on TV in the early months, but I do not see them anymore.
In any case, I hope it’s not to do with restrictions on the use of dialects on free-to-air television. It is important that these messages be broadcasted regularly to reach these seniors and for them to understand the gravity of the situation. And hopefully, there will be fewer of them flouting circuit breaker measures in the weeks to come.
It is harder for my grandparents to pass the time, so I respect their effort to stay home. Perhaps it could be a sign of their resilience out of deference to the Government too, seeing as they belong to the Pioneer Generation that generally follows the Government’s orders. Nevertheless, if they can stay home, I don’t see any reason why younger people can’t do it too.
Amid Virus Worries, I Have Never Felt Further From My Grandparents in India
When my 70-year-old grandmother told me over the phone that her side of town had been labelled a hotspot, I panicked. “Hotspot? You mean there have been a lot of cases in your area?”
She paused. “No, I don’t think so. The Indian government is just angry that people keep leaving their homes when they’re not supposed to.” In the background, I could vaguely hear my grandfather confirming that there had not been any reported cases in their neighbourhood.
I sagged in relief, even as worries about my grandmother misunderstanding virus-related terms crept into my mind. “Dadi, that’s not what hotspot means. A hotspot is an area where there are tons of positive cases of the virus.”
I wonder if she had heard the term being thrown around on TV without fully understanding what it meant. This would be unsurprising, given the speed and volume of information that flashes across the screen every time my dad flicks to Indian news channels in our home in Singapore.
My grandmother is English-literate, but sifting through the endless jumble of news is difficult for her. It doesn’t help that she is in constant pain from a bad knee, exacerbated by having to do household chores like cooking and cleaning during the lockdown. As painful as it is, it is less risky than letting her part-time domestic helpers enter her house every day, as they used to do before the pandemic started. My 75-year-old grandfather tries to pitch in but isn’t able to help much due to his neurological condition.
My grandmother tells me this in a whisper, not wanting to hurt her husband’s feelings. “He is useless in the kitchen, and we are going crazy holed up together. I really just want to step out for some fresh air.”
I bite back another surge of concern, not wanting to nag her again on the importance of staying indoors. We have told her this enough, and I don’t want to rub it in. It is especially difficult for a sociable couple like them to stay in for months on end, when their daily routine used to include a trip to the market and a chat with some of the neighbourhood’s most gossipy old folk.
I worry about them, but I am thankful they at least have each other. That seems far better than living alone, like my 84-year-old paternal grandmother does. She had been visiting us in Singapore when the virus started to take hold. We decided to cut her trip short, in case she got stuck here due to travel restrictions. The concern was mostly medical, since her Indian doctors know her full history and could make house calls whenever she needed them, a luxury my family did not have in Singapore.
Now, with the virus sinking its claws into the Indian population, I lay awake at night wondering what would happen if she has a medical emergency. Would she go to a clinic and would that be safe? Her doctors are all swamped, working around the clock to arrest the spread of the virus and care for ailing patients. It is also difficult for her daughter — my aunt — to visit her frequently due to the lockdown in India, so how do we even know if she is truly ok?
When I facetime my grandmother, I remind her that this will all be over soon, and life will be back to normal. She often says that this isn’t far from her version of normal, since she likes to stay at home and hardly ever goes out. But I know she is getting lonely and increasingly anxious.
I cannot do much, and I wonder if seeing my face as pixels on a screen brings her any comfort at all. Regardless, until the pandemic blows over and I can fly to her for the biggest hug, this is all I can offer, and it will have to do.
I Can’t Help But Worry Because Ah Ma Doesn’t Want Me To
When my 83-year-old grandmother contracted dengue fever last year, she didn’t tell us she was sick for three days, despite our daily calls. It was only when she called to say she felt faint and dizzy that we knew. By that time, she was already running a high fever and we had to send her straight to the hospital. Her blood palette count was so low, she was chided by the doctors for not seeking medical help sooner.
She told them that she didn’t want to worry us.
That memory frightens me more in these unprecedented times. She may have recovered from dengue fever, but Covid-19 is fatal, especially among the elderly. With symptoms similar to that of the flu, we worry she’ll think nothing of it and not inform us — like she had done with dengue fever.
My concern doesn’t just stop there. Ah ma is illiterate and only speaks Teochew, which keeps her knowledge of the world to her bubble of Teochew-speaking friends and us. Before she caught dengue, we had translated English brochures on how to prevent breeding spots in her house, which she followed strictly. However, we failed to tell her that dengue could be caught even outside her home, and she didn’t think much about the mosquito bites she got while out on her daily walks.
It scares me more now because we can’t visit her as often, nor long enough to fully explain the gravity of the situation. With dengue, we had government flyers as visual aids, but now our explanation is limited to what we can tell her over the phone daily.
It doesn’t help that the elderly have “home remedies” they share with each other — garlic buds can supposedly “ward off the virus” and pineapples are apparently “coronavirus serial killers”. The remedies make the situation seem less grave and give her the impression that she could fix herself up.
We had asked ah ma to move in when rumours of a lockdown spread but she refused. Her vegetables were more important and she wanted to ensure her young aloe vera bud would grow nicely. Instead, we buy her groceries and use it as a chance to check up on her. But we can’t do that every day.
My family is conflicted. If we meet her often and increase our grocery trips to find her, we risk exposing her to the virus when we meet after going out in public. But if we don’t check up on her often, we could risk repeating what happened when she caught dengue.
A fear lingers constantly, that I’ve missed translating something that would put her at risk, that she wouldn’t inform us even if she shows Covid-19 symptoms. Ah ma doesn’t want us to worry, yet I can’t help but be worried.
Loraine Lee Yen