Largesse of life fades but caring family and community endure

The largess of life will soon fade, but relationships will prevail. [iStockphoto]

In the last few years, as the 6th floor approaches, this column occasionally focuses on ageing and preparing for the inevitability of that season of life.

In this regard I wish to share some experiences that my chama and I had when we visited beautiful Cape town, to, in Kenya's lingua, "benchmark" on the concept of retirement communities. The latter is considerably developed in South Africa with Cape town registering hundreds of retirement communities representing all economic and social cadre.

CPOA, the Cape Peninsula for the Aged, was for instance founded in 1953 and runs scores of retirement communities, many of which we visited. Not surprisingly, none of the scores of homes we interacted with had any black residents, a testament, we learnt, of cultural hesitations and financial capacity.

The viability of retirement communities in Kenya, with similar cultural norms, remains indeterminate. Certain realities, including the absence of village homes to retire to and the unsuitability of our normal residences, will however push many of our generation to this reality. But the focus of today's column is not on retirement communities, but on lessons learnt about the changing dynamics of life as one gets older.

In all the homes we visited, from upmarket luxury gated communities to fairly low-income arrangements, one recurring theme was the smallness of the spaces occupied by the ageing. It was clear from the luxurious wheels outside some residences and the expensive furnishings in the homes that some of the residents had come from huge mansions, boasting of numerous bedrooms, entertainment rooms and sports wings. But in these communities, there was hardly any residence with more than two bedrooms.

Space was a liability

We learnt that at entry, the units in most demand were the two-bedroom apartments. To many of the ageing, too much space was a liability and hence movement from five-plus bedrooms to two bedrooms was a natural progression.

But even the two-bedroom apartment soon became a liability especially as spouses passed on and one was left alone. For the seventy plus, a one-bedroom apartment was ideal as it reduced the amount of movement and retained much needed familiarity. But this was not the end. As one grew older and needed more and more care, residents ended up desiring only a bed, in what were called "frail centers."

Here, there was no concern for too much private space, what was more important was constant care. What was left unsaid in this progression towards smaller and smaller spaces was that from here, the natural progression was to the ultimate smallest space, the inevitable end of all of us. Indeed, some residents had the ashes of their departed beloveds in small boxes, a testament to the inevitability of even smaller spaces.

I share this story not to celebrate what some would consider macabre, but to emphasize that the things we hold dear and precious will soon have grossly reduced value. This calls for review of perspective.

Firstly, we must covenant to enjoy the current moments. They will not last forever. Consequently, even as I write about ageing, one must not get so engrossed in the concerns for the coming future that they miss to celebrate the moments in the present. That which we put of for tomorrow must be reviewed and if possible, experienced today. But it also is a call for better perspective about what truly matters in life. What was interesting about all these places we visited was that even as the spaces became smaller, the need for loving family and caring community intensified.

The moral here is that even as we invest in the largesse of life and enjoy its blessings, we must know that what really endures is community. The largess of life will soon fade, but relationships will prevail. Our investments in relationships and caring communities must then be of supreme focus. Unfortunately, the latter does not come naturally.

To quote acclaimed American author Stephen Covey, it may be important, but it never feels urgent. Let it never be said of us that we were so busy putting up mansions and acquiring possessions that will become a burden in the later years at the expense of relationships that we will need for survival. Over to you.

- The writer is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya