The familiar bell rang. It was my mother-in-law who pressed the button to get help from her bedroom. When I walked into her room she was a little stoic and upset, even though she asked for a drink of ice cold water. She would do anything to fight the metallic taste in her tongue. That was eight years ago when she was terminally ill. She had made a habit of ringing the bell about once every 30 minutes and no one but me could answer. Prolonged illness and fear of death change people in ways that many of us do not understand. As a caregiver, I have seen completely sensible and loving people become very demanding and border on the unreasonable. My mother spoke fervently about my services for her visitors, even if she asked a lot of me otherwise. These two women were gentle, kind, generous and loving until their illness led them to the gates of death.
My mother-in-law had an interesting insight. We discussed the high profile case of the nurse Aruna Shanbagh, who was then in a vegetative state and was being cared for by the nurses at the hospital where she had worked. The nurses felt like gods, said my mother-in-law, because they demonstrated selflessness by taking care of Aruna. But has anyone thought about how Aruna was feeling? Given her condition, would she have wanted all that excitement? Wouldn’t she like the ordeal to end? The senselessness robs the joie de vivre. When one’s life is reduced to dependence on others for the simplest of tasks, there is a profound loss of self-esteem. This desperation also manifests as anger, selfishness, harsh words, or simple indifference.
Not everyone can exercise patience and show gratitude when there is such a severe lack of control over their life and basic functions. How can we prepare at all? How can we deal with our old age, ailments, illnesses and the inevitable end? How can we try to do better for ourselves and for others who care for us? First, as my dear friend Jo reminded us several times, take responsibility for what you can. Start today. You are responsible for your limbs. Use it or lose it. Be determined to live healthily and take care of what you can. Stay fit and flexible and be determined to stay as independent as possible. Allocate a portion of your current income to your health and wellbeing. Invest in yourself. Without investing time or money, your personal goals will stay on paper.
Second, don’t lead a complicated financial life. You don’t want to lose control of your health and spend your final days worrying about telling your children about the home village property; the unpaid loan to a dear friend; or the unclaimed bond that matured last year. Keep your affairs simple, well-listed, and up and running. Make it easy for others to use your money on your health when needed. Make delegating and handing over easy.
Third, consider the merit of a paid caregiver. Instead of spending large sums of money on complex healthcare, untapped assets, or unnecessarily large legacies, choose to spend money on your care where it matters. Rather than expecting your children and loved ones to be waiting for you, accept that meeting your basic daily needs is a chore and paid services should look after it appropriately. Remove emotions from your health care as much as possible. Make funding this goal part of your financial planning.
Fourth, the idea of palliative care is of considerable value. You can choose to stay in the comfort of your home, treat pain and discomfort with simple medications, and turn down intrusive medical care that is expensive and prolongs a pointless life. You only have the right to remain in hospital without being hospitalized if you choose to do so. You can create a living will that specifically prohibits intrusive hospital stays and allows you to decline life support devices that you hold while you breathe.
Fifth, surround yourself with like-minded people. As you age and have plenty of time to spare, your children and grandchildren will be busy chasing after their jobs, studies, and various life goals. Instead of accusing them of neglecting you, find others who have the time and similar interests. Social media platforms allow you to connect with a larger group of like-minded people and keep you updated too. Make the best out of it.
Sixth, don’t let nostalgia overwhelm you and transform yourself into a wailing elder who sees no value in today’s times and way of life. Each generation has assumed that the next is heading towards doom. There is no way you will be able to live the life of the next generation because you cannot occupy their world. That doesn’t make their world inferior to yours. The good old days are just psychologically satisfying reflections. They don’t mean much else because nobody would really be willing to travel to and live in this world.
Seventh, free your children from stressful guilt and the millstone of gratitude. What you did for them, they are busy doing for their children. That’s how it should be. Keep some of your wealth to yourself and give away what you can while you’re still alive. Several meaningful life goals of your children, siblings, caregivers, and others who have supported you can be funded from your wealth, which you believe should not be touched while you are alive.
Question this timeline. Be realistic about what you need and make the right decisions about what to give away. Financial planning for old age and illness does not have to be limited to health insurance and the assumption of costs. You don’t have to bear the burden of addiction by losing control of what is being spent on your health and the type of care you receive. You can take responsibility and allocate money in the present.
(The author is chairman, CIEL)