Ninety-two and walking

by Gautam Raja

My grandfather recently turned 92. He used to be in remarkably good shape, but sadly a stroke resulted in difficulty balancing and left him with weakness on one side. Even so, though Dadu walks gingerly, he gets everywhere without a cane.

Recently, he and I went on a shopping trip with a lunch stop for biryani. He loves biryani. As with most outings, it was tiring for him, but after we’d reached home and taken the lift up to his third floor flat, I saw him reaching for the car keys and heading for the door. I asked where he was going.

“I’ve left my bank papers in the car.” He was prepared to go all the way back down to retrieve the papers rather than ask me. I of course went down for the papers, but as I went, I was thinking of people far, far younger and less infirm than he, who are habitually too lazy to even get off a chair and walk across a room.

These are people who are constantly asking for things to be brought to them—water, coasters, or for the fan to be turned on or off. The overall tendency is to stay still, completely unlike Dadu whose tendency is to move. It is only since turning 90 that he will occasionally and reluctantly ask you to do something for him, but even so we often have to insist he sit while we help ourselves to the sweets he’s just told us are in the fridge. I know people who are a good fifty years younger who often can’t summon the energy to lean across the sofa for a biscuit from the coffee table. “Oh since you’re up…”

It’s not that he’s in perfect health. He used to smoke and eventually developed heart disease, suffering a heart attack in his sixties. He needed bypass surgery that had to be repeated many years later, followed by the fitting of a pacemaker. But ever since that first attack, he has made a morning walk an unwavering part of his routine. It used to be a 4km loop around Whitefield, but as the outskirts developed and the traffic became horrendous, he chose to walk around a nearby gated community. After the stroke, as his balance diminished, he walked round and round our apartment block. But he fell twice, so now he limits himself to his penthouse terrace, but walk he does, going up and down 45 times every morning, except when it rains.

Occasionally, knowing I’m interested in fitness, he will proudly demonstrate his early morning in-bed exercises—limb extensions that strengthen the core muscles and preserve range of motion. My grandmother would often laugh about how her first sight of the day would be my grandfather’s pajamaed leg suddenly swinging into the air above their bed.

It’s hard to know whether my Dadu’s positivity is what drives him to look after himself, or if it’s the looking after himself that does it. Whether the person is 15, 30, 60 or 90, I’ve seen that the decision to give up control over one’s body is marked by a steep decline in positivity and confidence, followed by an even more precipitous decline in physical ability.

So while sitting back and having people wait on you might feel like luxury, there seems to be a part of the mind that recognises you are giving up control. And if getting up off your chair and putting on a light switch seems like such a task, what happens then to the real obstacles in your life?

First published in Gulf News, October 1, 2013