Advertisement

I never had children – so I look after seniors instead

<span>Photograph: Alamy</span>
Photograph: Alamy

It’s 4.30pm and I’m cutting up prosciutto for my 89-year-old uncle so he can take his evening pills with something in his stomach. Something other than the orgy of Mini Magnum ice-cream bars that he and my aunt just wolfed down while I was intercepting the pizza delivery guy.

What kind of a midlife fool do they take me for? As if I wouldn’t notice the sticky aftermath smeared all over their guilty faces. Not to mention hearing their entire “covert” operation when I came back into the house. Busted. They forgot to turn on their hearing aids and couldn’t hear a thing they were doing, or how loudly they were doing it – the freezer drawer slamming, the wrappers crackling, the gleeful squeals and smacking lips. Those sly dogs.

Related: The optimism of youth has given way to mourning the death of a parent. And friendship is needed more than ever | Ranjana Srivastava

“Can you please sit down for dinner so Uncle Max can take his pills?” I plead, trying to wrangle them in with overpriced wood-fired pizza and caprese salad, but they’re ignoring me. My uncle is fiddling with the hearing aid app on his iPhone, blissfully unaware of what any of the settings do, holding steadfast in his belief that “those bozos forgot to add a volume control”, despite two clearly marked sliders.

Consequently, he’s always yelling to my aunt at the top of his lungs. She generally forgets that she owns hearing aids, so it’s basically a nonstop comic symphony of misfires.

“Rose! Where are my green pants?”

“What’d you say, Max, dear? No. We don’t need any more lamps! Or did you say France?”

My aunt is busy replacing the stoneware plates and stainless flatware I arranged on the table with a pile of mismatched paper plates and a smorgasbord of assorted plastic cutlery obviously lifted from a plethora of gas stations, coffee shops and hospital cafeterias over the last century.

“Nobody who lives past 80 wants to wash a dish, Shanti. You’ll learn soon enough.” What? I’m only 53! I’ve given up trying to explain how wasteful it is and she’s too jacked up on instant coffee and Magnum Minis to argue about it now. I pick my battles carefully.

“It’s the oddest thing, Shanti, I can’t post on FaceTime anymore and … ” She means Facebook.

“Let’s just focus on dinner right now, shall we?” I feel guilty about interrupting, but I know how this goes. If I don’t head her off at the pass we’ll never eat.

“We’ll go over all that after dinner, I promise.”

“Do we watch Ted Lasso on HBO or Prime?”

Oh boy, here we go again. “Neither. Eat some dinner. Please.” How do they survive on such little food? I just ate lunch and I’m famished.

“And what’s our Hulu password? We really need to get crackin’ on Frank and Gracie.”

I never got to see my parents grow old and always wonder what they would have been like – how their faces, hands and expressions would have changed

She must be hitting the Pedialyte again, she’s really ramped up. “It’s called Grace and Frankie and it’s on Netflix, not Hulu.” I take a deep breath.

“And like I said, we’ll get to all that after we eat dinner.” If I have any energy left by 6pm.

“And where did all my text messages go? I can’t find them anywhere.” She erases them daily for reasons I’ll never understand.

“How about no cellphones at the table?” I say, reaching for their devices.

The table is strewn with broken plastic forks, an empty bottle of chocolate-flavored Boost, a pile of defunct hearing aid batteries, a busted CPAP mask, a wad of used tissues, a single compression sock and bits of leftover egg salad. It’s senior anarchy.

“You need to eat your vegetables,” I say, firmly.

“We had a Boost for lunch.”

Don’t get me started on the Boost drinks. At the rate they suck those puppies down, they’re headed for an intervention, or rehab. Last week I found my aunt balancing precariously on the edge of a step stool. “I know I have another Boost in here somewhere, we got a 12-pack.” She was spun out, frantically pushing her way through cans of tuna fish and jars of applesauce in search of a fix. “Oh, thank God you’re here, Shanti! I can’t reach the back of the cupboard. You know, we lose three or four inches a year.” (More like one, but who’s counting.) “Like your uncle says, if only we shrunk back down to the size of a baby, we’d be easier to handle.” No comment.

“If I find Ted Lasso, will you eat some salad?” I ask.

“And then we can have ice-cream.”

“You just had ice-cream, remember?” It was less than an hour ago.

“Did we?” They look so innocent, but I’m not falling for it.

They could easily consume a box of Magnums Minis a day if I didn’t hide them under the frozen peas, or conveniently “forget” to buy them – feigning ignorance for the missing grocery items from their weekly shopping list. They always have at least four boxes stashed in the freezer.

But my “healthier” grocery substitutions don’t go over well, especially when it comes to ice-cream: “Don’t buy us yogurt, Shanti, we’re not hippies.”

They’re 84 and 89 years old; I should probably just open the floodgates and let it rip. They’ve come this far on ice-cream, bacon, egg salad, hot dogs and buttery toast. Why not throw caution to the wind and eat ice-cream for dinner?

After all, what do I know? I’m 30 years younger than they are, exhausted and ready for a stiff cocktail and a soft bed. And it’s barely 6pm.

“Shanti, you need to loosen up a little, life is too short.” They’re always telling me to relax and enjoy myself, and maybe they’re right – it would do me some good to live a little. Hell, I might even crack open a chocolate Boost.

“Alexa! Play Frank Sinatra,” my aunt shrieks, as if hailing a cab.

I’m getting exasperated, not to mention going deaf with all the yelling.

Fly Me to the Moon blasts on at max volume and they both start singing.

“Please don’t sing with your mouths full, you’re going to choke!”

Dammit. I realize that I forgot to pick up the adult nappies.

I never had children. I look after seniors instead. I didn’t plan it this way; life just happened. After losing both of my parents, I’ve adopted the role as a nomadic, companion/caregiver for many of my aunts, uncles and a host of friends over 70. I adore their company so much that I typically come away feeling as if I get more from them than they do from me – other than all the tech support, of course.

I never got to see my parents grow old and always wonder what they would have been like – how their faces, hands and expressions would have changed. How they’d use technology, what books they’d be reading, what television shows they’d be watching (Would they enjoy Ted Lasso as much as I do?), what food they’d be eating, what advice they’d give me about getting older.

I’ve always felt more at home with seniors and as a self-proclaimed “story junkie” and keen listener (plus, I really do love a good egg salad), I find myself seeking out their company and preserving their stories.

I can’t help but feel a kind of empty-nest syndrome creeping in as my favorite generations slip away. I plan on spending as much time with them as possible, despite occasionally challenging situations – and most likely some premature hearing loss on my part.