Empathy for “stubborn” seniors

It is time to get serious with social distancing in Singapore. In the space of one month, our number of daily new infections recorded has gone from laudable single or low double digits to past a hundred, then two hundred, then three hundred and today, past four hundred.

Social media has been flooded with images, videos and news of “stubborn” aunties and uncles (how we refer to seniors affectionately or irritation depending on how genial or cantankerous they are) refusing to stay at home, refusing to follow social distancing rules, refusing to put on masks, giving police officers a hard time when they are advised to follow the rules … the list goes on.

The responses to these posts saddens me with netizens chiding the old person and calling them selfish and stubborn and asking the children of these seniors to manage their parents better.

I am not saying that the actions of these seniors is right. The seniors do need to do differently and play their part to help flatten the curve. But please can we consider their perspectives and perhaps in seeking first to understand we can help them to cooperate, even if grudgingly.

Let’s just take masks as an example. It’s hot and humid in Singapore, making it a discomfort to keep a mask on when one goes out on essential errands. Now imagine you are older and your lungs are weaker. How much harder is it for someone who is in their 70s or 80s to breathe? And if they have a chronic condition such as asthma? I am not saying that old age is an excuse to not put on a mask. However, when we approach someone older to try to influence them to do so, perhaps starting with a dash of empathy might solicit cooperation more amicably than coming down with rules and fines as threats.

Staying at home for some could also be challenging, especially for those who live alone. There are older folks who for a myriad of reasons are not wired to the myriad of entertainment options that younger folks have on their phones, computers, game consoles and TV screens. For these individuals, their daily routine pre-Covid-19 of sitting at the void deck or coffeeshops was all they had as a way to mark the passage of time. Taking this away and asking them to stay at home, in lonely self-isolation is hugely destabilizing. Again, I am not saying their insistence is right. If we can but seek to understand, would we be able to see with new eyes and empathy and thus, recognize that their agitation might be due to the loss of their identity, an uprooting of a connection to a place and a grieving for life as they had known it?

Sometimes, our harsh reactions in real life or on social media betray our own fears and we see their actions as a sort of stupidity or bravado or stubbornness of old folks who would tell us that they have “eaten more salt than we have rice”. Let’s pause and reconsider the entire situation from their eyes, with their fears, insecurities and physical challenges and let’s respond with a kinder tone. Sometimes, that is all that is needed.

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