The weekly economic sermons hidden in advertisements in newspapers for a happy old age have triggered this article. But I must confess I don’t have even the flimsiest of idea about old age. Speaking from ordinary common sense, it is a stage in life. Sometimes it may be after 60 years of age going by the financial or insurance catch words. But is it really so?
First, take the financial jargon. Taking the benefits accruing from insurance for a happy old age, it seems to suggest the age when income dries up or retirement comes. But those without employment or regular incomes would fall in the old age category even at a young or younger age of 20, 30 or 40. So it is only one of the criteria for considering a person old or entering old age. What can be the other factors? Before going any further, I decided to look up the dictionary. It gave some very instructive and hilarious connotations. Old age means the time of life when you are old! The illustrative sentence formation is hilarious indeed: old age can bring many problems or he lived alone in his old age. That compelled me to look for the meaning of old. Here are some examples: The baby was few hours old. It means “not young” as in “she was a woman grown old before her time. More comes from the note , which says that old, elderly, aged, long lived and mature are words which describe somebody who has lived long time. One interesting sentence using the word aged has this: having aged relatives to stay in your house can be quite stressful. An old wives’ tale sums up everything from the meaning, value and community attitude to whosoever is old!
It is clear from the foregoing that there is no clarity about old or old age. It has many meanings and no one clear meaning. It can be a physical condition, as at age above 60 years or so. It can be an emotional condition as is the case with the person living a lonely life. It can be a financial condition when a person is unable to provide for himself, remains hungry or undergoes rough sleeping in the open under bridges or bus shelters etc. It can be a medical condition also. However, the phrase old age frightens people. It is associated with death. It is the presage of death. Nobody wants to die. Because of this death phobia, the best period of life has been converted into a nightmare. Everybody is out to make money in the name of old age, especially insurance agents, wealth planners, financial advisors, economic planners and legal advisors. They spend so much on advertising the horrors of the old age that even the very young start fearing old age. How strange? When you should be looking for that time of life to pursue all those hobbies you have been postponing all these 60 years or so, you are working out insurance and taxes? In making preparations for that frightening old age, you have lost all your loved ones, as they were busy pursuing their goals like you, leaving you end up being “alone” in old age. You have money, wealth, estate, luxuries and private jets etc, but no happiness or peace!
The subject of the old people is fast acquiring urgency in India, especially for more than 30% of the people living in the cities and megalopolises. What to do in old age? What is to be done for the old except honouring them by calling them “senior citizens”? The quick fix solutions include providing “old age homes”. That is appreciated by many but criticized by others, for it not only gives the feeling of being old but also neglected, who are simply awaiting death. There are senior citizens clubs, which again leave similar feelings. Some bolder and older have decided to go in for the New Age Marriages, the Live-in relationship. But old age is not only lack of matrimonial bliss. Then what is it?
We are living in an age where people are growing “de-emotionalized” rather fast. All family and other bonds are getting re-defined. How else would any sociologist explain it that the death of a father or mother or brother or wife or husband or son or daughter does not bring tears nowadays? People put quarter page advertisements in prominent newspapers with the last line reading “ No condolence Visits” or simply inserting a mobile number without disclosing the venue for the condolence meeting, if any? People have forgotten to cry. It is so natural to cry as it is first sound a newborn makes. He cries. She cries. The cry of the baby is joy of the elderly, nay the old! It is so troublesome to be disturbed by these people practicing “laughter therapy” in the public park next to your flat in the morning in a demonic way. Those who can’t cry can’t laugh! If they attempt to do so, they make a nuisance of themselves by disturbing the night shift workers’ sleep, students making final preparations for their morning examination, the ailing senior citizen or the ordinary citizen trying to establish communion with Nature and its creation! What these laughter fellows do is some kind of the act the three witches in Shakespeare’s drama Macbeth do. They are ghoulish, but they care for nobody. They must try to laugh, as their therapist has advised them so. A group of agitated senior citizens has petitioned the Bombay High Court to put an end to this nuisance at a public place.
Is old age really such a curse? No, certainly not. It has been made so by all those professionals, who have made it their business to convert people’s old age phobia into a good business. What use is money if one ends up being lonely? The moneyed are the unhappiest of all people, as there is nobody to consume their wealth. All their life they spent in earning money and investing in their children’s education and career. That ended in over-development, over-growth and over-richness. It weaned the children away from the parents in old age. Whatever little remained was appropriated by the spouse, in case of a breach in the matrimony. It is natural for a couple to look after themselves. But it is not necessary to leave the parent(s) alone. There is no greater curse in old age than being emotionally starved or deprived. The present times are doing that exactly. That makes old age a stressful life. If the children are not with you, you become a source of terrible stress to your relatives even when you visit them for a day! Being in financial difficulties makes things worse. It might cause health problems too. Combined together all these may bring about an early death. But we are blessed to have a happy long life at every birthday! Aren’t we?
We are rightly blessed to have a happy long life. The traditional Indian family structure ensured a happy and fulfilling old age. It made old age a precious stage of life, a blessing sought by all people and the most productive span of life. This was the time to give back to the family, society and nature something and move from the mundane to the sublime state of mind. It was designed to be the age of practicing detachment and take a neutral view of everything. If 60 years of hard work and generating income has proved inadequate, the few years remaining in life will not satisfy the family needs. The best children are those who have learnt to earn enough to meet their needs. We are blessed to be “shataayu” (live for 100 years). Life beyond 100 might truly be the old age. Till then, it is young forever. The wise should never consider themselves old. They must continue to work hard. Even harder than what they have been doing so far. There is so much to learn in life. We give up reading even though we want to know so many things, only because all our time and energies have been devoted all these years in making an earning to provide for the family needs. Death should never be feared. Yet dying without evolving into an emancipated person should always be feared. It does not demand high educational qualifications to achieve this simple goal, as there are any number of organizations devoted to spreading knowledge and a good listener can absorb all that. India has a tradition of “kathaa” (recitation/exposition) and other societies must also have some such tradition of oral learning. Our ears are meant for that kind of learning and self education. Old age is when you can devote good time to such elevating activities that help you grow and be yourself. It helps you to be the achiever that you have always been dreaming.
In India the life span of a human being is broadly divided into 4 periods. These are: brahamcharya, grahastha, vanaprastha and sanyaas. For our immediate purpose a free translation can be attempted. These are formal education, family life, moving into the forests and renunciation. It is not a fixed tenure of 25 years devoted to each span, but these are the stages one might consider for a healthy and happy life. Proceeding to the forest in the third stage means withdrawing into the sylvan surroundings of a forest or other quiet place, away from the hustle & bustle of cities and megalopolises, to pursue your interests undisturbed. It encourages a person to outgrow the mundane routine of life practiced so far. Try to unburden your mind for a few minutes of all the worries of finance, income or loneliness and experience the bliss that follows. Do we not try to forget our failures and unpleasant experiences of life? It is necessary to move forward in life. The moment the movement comes to a stop, it is old age. So long as you keep moving, you are young. The young don’t fear death. They have no time to think of death. They live life to their fullest satisfaction and in doing so when they die they don’t even know.
No amount of legislation, institutions or organizations can ever provide complete satisfaction of the needs of old age or the elderly or the senior citizens excepting a sound and healthy family structure. They deserve the love, affection and respect of their near and dear ones, whom they have reared up so lovingly all these years. The responsibilities, obligations and duties of the family members cannot and should not be transferred to the society or loaded onto the kind hearted decent citizens. It is gross abuse of others’ decency to leave your aged parents or widowed mother at an unknown place like Banaras or Vrindavan in the hope that some kind hearted person will take care of them in these religious places where people still inculcate in the minds of their children the traditional values of love and respect for the parents and the aged. These values have hampered social and economic development of people in these areas as compared to the inhuman sons and daughters, who leave their aged mother or father at these places to die or live at the mercy of the kind hearted. The media, government agencies and judicial establishment have no qualms of conscience in calling millions of such abandoned women the “widows of Vrindavan”, though they are all from other states like West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar, Assam etc. They are the mothers of well educated and well placed children. They treat their mothers in such inhuman manner to escape the stress their family life suffers due to the presence of an old mother or father. Then the state agencies sentimentalize, without locating their children and enjoining upon them the onerous duty to look after their aged parent(s). With the increasing percentage of the elderly, which stands at approximately 10% currently, meaning around 121 million people, there is need for healthy solutions. Our urban planners have to create accommodations where parents can live with their children. Presently the pigeon holes of flats in megalopolises break the family into sub-nuclear formations. Revival and strengthening of the great Indian Joint Family System is the best scientific solution to the problem of the elderly, who are simply victims of bad urbanization. Even the well- to- do are unhappy. This makes valuable assets appear like huge liability!
That raises one more important issue. As the children ignore their old parents, should parents also ignore their children, leaving them to the care of the government or the merciful in the society, in the same way they have done to their parents? Parents too can buy heavy insurance, pensions and experiment with more than one marriage or live-in relationships. Why should it be a taboo? How can children object to their parents conduct? If children are entitled to live total independence, so are the parents. Will the Indian Society be able to take the consequences of this change? Is the government prepared to handle the changed social order of this magnitude? The Legislature, the executive and the judiciary are continuously demolishing all good social practices. Tradition is no better than being traditional for them and is considered reactionary. But what they are promoting is also becoming a “tradition”. Live-in is their gift as a new tradition (though not fully unknown to India, where it was not punished but never encouraged excepting in the most un-mitigating circumstances). Is this more scientific? Healthier? Colonies of such new breeds might come up but not society. They shall remain unapproved colonies!
As society undergoes tremendous turmoil, people must shed some of their emotional make up and face every unthinkable situation. Personal empowerment has become necessary. Life in the cities is stressful. There is nowhere to go. The solution lies in practicing vaanprastha or journey to the sylvan surroundings of the forests in one’s home itself. My mantra would be: explore, discover, disseminate. Big money or bigger houses are no guarantee of a happy old age, but a state of vaanprastha mind certainly is. Never fear death for death is certain.
Let us celebrate old age then!