Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
AGEING: October 18, 1998
When asked if I would write an article on "Ageing Gracefully," I agreed with alacrity as I now know, and have known earlier, several persons who were a joy to meet and a treat to be with, who would, if one used only chronology as criterion, be called ageing. And I wanted to present a counterpoint to the articles and features on the aged in the last month or so in many English language newspapers and magazines. There has been virtually a Pokhran of exploratory journalism, mainly exploding the thesis that Indians have strong family ties. Some of these articles were dismal in the extreme. One never doubted their authenticity, but one did question the sampling procedure. It seemed as if all the cases presented were of King Lear-like situations, reflecting the perfidy and faithlessness of children now grown to adulthood.
These stories did expose the mercenary attitudes of some people who could treat their old parents as they would inanimate objects in their possession i.e. of no use now, hence to be discarded. Whether reading about people like themselves will move people to filial loyalty will be one of the unanswered questions of our times.
However, the sense of distress at the gloomy depictions of the aged is not to deny that there are social and demographic factors as explanation. Large families have devolved into nuclear units. Another factor is the migration of the young to other countries, who sometimes find themselves walking perilously on the thin edge of the Green Card; tragically, even parental funerals are a matter of proxy. Add to these, the assertion of individuality and self expression on the part of the generation just entering adulthood. There is some attrition in the status of the ageing and in the attention they receive for their own needs.
Growing older, or ageing is a continuous process from birth onwards. So when does it merit a capital 'A'? What is that point in the life span which cuts off adulthood and maturity and begins "Ageing"? A comment made by Erik Erikson, author of "Gandhi's Truth" is quickly retrieved by one's memory cells.
"Do you know when you are considered old? When people on the street don't look at you. They avoid meeting your eye and let their glance slide off the side of your head", said Erik Erikson in a conversation in the Seventies, when he was in India after a visit to Europe. This was an astute observation and one that serves as a comment on a Collective Unconscious. Erikson's comment was about Europe two decades ago and it did not at that time seem applicable to India. One is not so certain any more. If we introspect, most of us will admit that we avoid looking directly at a physically handicapped person, as though our gaze might be embarrassing to that person (and also embarrassing to oneself, not knowing how to confront such a person). Old age, per se, is like a handicap in the eyes of some people in the prime of their life: a matter for pity, sometimes a butt of humour and always, a sad inevitability.
However, old age is no more sad than any other stage of life. The old are sometimes the butt of jokes: laughing at the old because they fumble for change, forget what day of the week it is, walk up the stairs very slowly, is so cheap, that one should not honour it with the label "humour". As for pity, it tends to be a misplaced sentiment: those who receive it, reject it wanting none of it and those who seek pity, probably do not deserve it! Instead of pity, people would like understanding, affection, friendship. I have found that when chronology does not dominate one's thinking i.e. when being friends with people of the same age is not an overriding consideration, one's acquaintances and friends range across the whole span. Then we realise that age is not the defining criterion for any set of tracts and that old people vary on any trait as much as adolescents do. There are crabby old people, but there are also crabby middle-aged people and crabby young people. There is a long continuum along which a group of persons can be placed, on any particular trait: for example from sweet-tempered to irascible. However, if all age groups have a similar distribution, age is not a factor in temperament. Thus old age is not the period that the negative stereotypes attached to it would have us believe. The ageing do not necessarily have to feel that they cannot contribute to the well being of the family and community.
I have a sheaf of examples where the old are very useful to those in the prime of life, and I have made a list of the types of roles they fill.
International jet-set baby sitter
This type of grandparent, especially the female of the species, is popular with NRIs. If she is above 55 years, the U.S. visa is a cinch. After a few thousands have been spent for the U.S. fee to consider the application and the U.S. fee to give the visa, a smiling travel agent hands over a five-year multiple entry visa to the said ageing member of the family. The grandmother then spends three months in California with her daughter, ushers in the arrival of an infant and just as she gets really attached to the grandchild, moves to Nebraska where her son lives. Her daughter-in-law has taken up a new job and there is no one to look after the child in the afternoons. The arrangement continues for five months after which she leaves for India via New York and a mandatory trip to the Niagara Falls organised by a cousin who works in Wall Street. Throughout the stay she has had access to a 24 hour T.V. with 63 channels, a well stocked refrigerator including at least four flavours of ice cream and phone calls to India on the day of the week the AT and T offers its promotional free calls. That the ageing person is literally a prisoner of affluence, cut off from familiar haunts and faces is not discussed. Efficiency is all.
Resident IG of Police
Whenever children in the family are caught doing mischief or playing truant from tuition class or homework time, the grandfather's name is invoked. The child is told that he is soon to be punished by an angry grandfather. Although the threat remains only a threat, everybody cooperates in reinventing reality. Thus when the grandfather clears his throat meaningfully, the child becomes quiet and engages himself assiduously in the task of multiplying 539 by 268 or whatever other exercise, a sadistic Class III teacher has given. The gentle soft-spoken grandfather keeps his own counsel. His presence in the household serves some purpose after all.
Telephone answering machine
During the long hours when the entire family is out of the house, except for those quietly ageing gracefully, all incoming phone calls are noted by them and passed on. This system is more complex than the electronic answering machine, as it is personalised and has a three-way operation. (i) Several complicated messages for teenage grandchildren are taken. (ii) The children's doubts about the accuracy of the message, the tone of voice of the speaker and so on are cleared. (iii) Questions of the middle generation (the parents of the said children) on the identity and ulterior motive of the caller are also answered suitably.
This low-cost alternative to the electronic answering machine sometimes tends to slow down or mix up the messages. A cup of strong coffee generally restores normal function.
Chef de cuisine
Only the female ageing person qualifies for this role. Her popularity with the children in the family shoots up when she organises home-based production of "grand sweets". On the days reserved for the annual worship of Krishna or Ganesa even the instruction to be bathed and dressed early is obeyed without demur. The rewards for such behaviour are immediate and gratifying. A few appreciative comments about the delicacies produced by the ageing person ensures a repeat performance the following year.
If one of the grandparents falls ill, and is confined to bed, the partner is converted into a nursing aide, irrespective of training or temperament. The harmony and mutual understanding of which they have boasted is now required to be demonstrated. There may be some unskilled staff to assist with the nursing, but the ageing person is the expert, generally left with all-night nursing as well. This cultivation of the para-professional nursing skills is taken for granted by all the younger people in the family who claim that they admire the sense of duty and dedication of the older generation.
To come back to the beginning of this article, there is no intrinsic problem in ageing gracefully. That will happen when the ageing are treated gracefully.
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