Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
AGEING: October 18, 1998
Dr. Sheilu Srinivasan
The concept of productive ageing is premised on solid scientific evidence that ageing is keyed to the level of vigour of the body and continuous interaction between levels of body activity and levels of mental activity. In fact age-related deterioration in most mental functions can actually be reversed. Research in gerontology and neuropsychology shows that mental activity makes neurons sprout new dendrites with which to establish connections with other neurons. The dendrites shrink when the mind is idle. To put it simply a person who stops solving problems arrives at a point where he cannot solve problems. Lesson: Keep active.
To hail academic theories that actually help improve the quality of longer lives we are living today is not a bad proposition. Such knowledge can pepper daily life, and senior citizens can goad themselves into adopting such "productive" postures. Knowledge is the most basic intervention that serves to dispel "ageism", the falsely held stereotypes and myths about older people. But what does one actually "do" in a society where such negative imagery of old people and discrimination is at its rampant worst.
Witness, for instance, the plight of E. A. Abraham (81), Mumbai, who wanted to enrol for a course in a local college to learn Sanskrit. He was denied admission everywhere on account of his age. So he took to working for a Ph.D in Bombay University because that was the only possibility that did not have age bar. He successfully obtained a degree in Sanskrit when he was 75. Instances of denial of opportunity for productive ageing run into tomes of gerontological literature documented in Dignity Dialogue, a monthly magazine for productive ageing, where subscribers give vent to their agony, disappointment, disillusionment, and even betrayal.
Provision of structural opportunities to facilitate older people is then the challenge we face in India today, as the country's age profile assumes similar trends as in the greying Europe and silvering Japan. As sociologist Dr. Parthonath Mukherjea, Director of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, said in July 1996 while presiding over a "convocation" of senior citizens who successfully learnt computer skills in our classes open only to old people, "individual NGO initiatives in providing such top end opportunities are extremely significant in the face of India's demographic trends. More than the government, it is the NGO sector that seems to come up with innovative ideas".
As a social worker and student of sociology, running services for senior citizens, life enrichment, my experiential findings based on three-and a half years' of everyday contact with seniors, show that, middle class, educated seniors are very quick to take to the need for knowledge and practice of productive ageing activities. However, one crucial finding arising from our experience of providing second career prospects is that in sharp contrast to western societies' emphasis on post-retirement leisure, holidays, good food, fun and frolic, Indian seniors are eager to embrace opportunities for social work. He/she places a higher evaluation of work ethic involved in social work rather in pastine leisure and fun.
The proof of this is seen in Mumbai where 663 Dignitarians, in a unique collaboration with the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC), have got into the project of Cleaning Mumbai with Dignity: Their morning walks have got converted into talks with BMC sweepers on the streets; their weekly social has turned into a meeting time for sharing of civic problems and redressal methods through the municipal ward officers; and the celebration of Independence Day has got clubbed with what they have titled as 'Freedom from Garbage Andolan'! Senior citizens have now created opportunities to act as community leaders whereby they induce citizens not to throw garbage on the streets, and their own 150 "Model Streets" are offered as showcases to other citizens to follow suit. Sorting of garbage and composting within the compound is the training they now undergo. Enthusiasm for the environment guides their need to keep active and socially integrated. They stand testimony to the dictum that social participation is the senior citizens' best antidote to decline that is normally associated with age.
Or take their Helpline, for instance, where nearly 200 senior volunteers are working on providing companionship services to lonely seniors. "Sometimes elder-callers talk for over 40 minutes too, as they relate their life stories" says Shashi Patni (61), working for the third consecutive year on this project. The volunteers, all over 50, have been able to reach out to abused elders, where children or relatives have harassed them on matters relating to property. "By being there for older people in need of social support, we ourselves are relieved of the boredom and depression that used to bother me so much", says Metrani (85).
Productive ageing should not be restricted to the narrow limits of gainful work. Second career or post-retirement pursuit should be ideally defined as combining the best of work and leisure. When productivity is broadened to include work beyond participation in the labour force, to embrace activities undertaken with passion, (something you have always wanted to do, but could not in your first career), it assumes sociological significance. First, it is useful in arguments of the politics of intergenerational equity. Showing that late adulthood is still productive helps to refute the notion that the elderly are only a drain on family/societal resources. Second, the definite psychological benefits of productivity for the elderly themselves - such as better health, motivation, cognitive functioning and life satisfaction or self actualisation. Third the sociological relevance of productivity for social integration and participation. To the extent that urban India is very much a 'work society' productive work is a major link between society and individuals.
The crowning expression of productivity among senior citizens is self esteem, dignity. What the senior citizen wants is not fame, name, money, or fortune, but dignity. To be not only conscious of it, but also to be seen to be productive has an enormous amount of value addition to his sense of self importance. When the grandchild sees his grandfather organising his life with meaning and purpose, the former entertains not only a certain pride in owning up the latter, but also actively indulges in even exaggerating grandpapa's busy schedules. The younger generation is happy to be proud children of productive parents and grandparents, who have in a manner of speaking learnt to look after themselves, and keep themselves busy and engaged in meaningful pursuits. This is our actual finding borne out of personal meetings, correspondence, articles and interviews. He/she wants to live the rest of his/her life with self respect.
Ancient and medieval visions of ageing as the renouncing-focused end part of life is fast changing, making way for the secular, scientific, and individualistic outlook of modernity. This is true of at least the post-independence generation of media which has benefited the first-wave of liberal education and who are all over 50 now. The corollary of recognising older people as potential contributors to the productive capacity of society is the equally important recognition that they constitute an important market. Not for nothing did Wall Street Journal declare the "there is a lot of gold in geriatrics" - potential that remains largely unexplored in India by business entrepreneurs. Insurance, housing, health, holidays and culturally oriented care services need to be tailor made for the seniors. Till that time NGOs will have to nurture and deliver precious services for leading the seniors into productive ageing possibilities.
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