Thursday, February 19, 2009

Charis Old Folks' Home Visit

Our first community service project for the year was the visit to Rumah Orang Tua Charis in Cheras. Setting off from WMS at around 8, we spent most of the bus trip making last-minute reviews on what we would be doing - our tasks, games, interaction etc. Catherine, our president, and Grace, our Comm. Serv. Director, set some ground rules - the first one being INTERACT with the old folks.

When we arrived, we were greeted by the cheery old folks, gathering at the front porch. They informed us that the caretaker, Ms Janet, was on her way, so we split up and started talking to the old folks. Since all the residents of the home were Chinese, Interactors who could not speak Chinese or Cantonese were paired up with those who could.

The first few moments were awkward. What do you ask old folks, how do you talk to them? I racked my brains and came up with mundane questions like "What time did you wake up today?" "What do you do after you wake up?" "How is your day like?".

But somehow, it was as if that was all the old people needed - someone to listen to mundane stuff, just for awhile. Their lives are nothing exciting, day in and day out - some of them are illiterate, so they can't even read the newspapers. That, or their eyesight is too bad. Being a Christian home, however, most of them are taught to sing hymns in Chinese by their caretakers, Janet and Suzanne. I learnt that the old folks don't even play what is generally assumed as 'old' games, like chess. They mostly sleep, or chat with each other.

While it was nice conversing with them, I could sense the hint of loneliness when they talked about their families. The old man I spoke to had a nerve problem with his right hand and it lay limp, unable to do anything. When I later offered my hand to shake his, and he responded with his left, I felt a pang because I'd forgotten that he couldn't use his right. He had a family - a wife, two children. They lived pretty far away, and seldom visited. He could take a taxi to visit them, but seldom did that either. In a way, it was saddening to hear such a thing - here he was, an old man inconvenienced by inability to move well, and his family wasn't with him. How would you feel?

Once the caretakers Jenny and Suzanne arrived, we proceeded with our plans. One group of Interactors broke off to take care of the porridge lunch we'd prepared for the old folks, while the rest of us arranged chairs in a circle and proceeded to play 'pass the parcel' with festive Chinese New Year songs.

Of course, we deliberately stopped the music such that each old folk got their turn doing the 'punishment' >.< Most of them sportingly complied, singing old tunes for us. Some even danced! And surprisingly, they were quite good at singing. I remember a beautiful rendition of 'Edelweiss' by one of the folks who could speak English pretty well. And there was another who sang the Cantonese Classic 'Xiong Hoi Tan'.

Each of them got at least a present, from caps to birds' nest. When the 'punishment' fell on Interactors, they, too, gamely did their thing, mostly dancing for the old folks. I suppose the only place in which we dare to sing would be the shower.

After the game, it was time for an early lunch. setting out tables, we escorted the old folks' to their seats and served them porridge and stewed pork with eggs, grinning when they gave us the thumbs up and chorused 'Hou sek!' (delicious) The Interactors helped with the food, cutting up pieces that might be too large for the old folks, and even got our share of the food later.

While the old folks ate, some of us went back to the kitchen to wash up and clean up the place, mopping the floor and such. Some of the old folks experssed surprise that we knew how to do this things - perhaps they assumed that we were the pampered generation. ^^ After cleanup, it was time for the next activity - performances by the Interactors.

This was a rather haphazard compilation of simple dances and songs, which we never really completed, feeling awkward halfway through because we'd forgotten some steps or the lyrics - but the old folks laughed anyway. We gave out gifts after that - face towels, mandarins, and even angpaus donated by one of the Interactor's parents.

All too soon, it was time to leave. After a group photo, we bade goodbye to the old folks we had first spoken to - I was startled to find the old man I had spoken to first - the one with the limp hand - crying when we said goodbye. It was quite heartbreaking... and we went and hugged him. We hugged most of the old folks too. Perhaps that was what they needed.

Altogether, it was a touching experience to serve the old folks. It reminded us of why we should always love and care for the elderly, because they need us.

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