Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
AGEING: October 18, 1998
Alone but not lonely
I cannot live in my son's house and play second fiddle to my daughters-in-law at this stage of my life," declared my 80-year-old grandmother, twenty five years back. The ceremonies following my grandfather's death were just over and my father and his brothers were discussing their mother's immediate future. "I prefer to live independently in my own house and die in it" she continued vehemently. And so she did, firmly brushing aside all protests, confident that she wanted to spend the rest of her life in control of her surroundings. Her sons visited her in turns but that was more for their own peace of mind, as she really made no demands on them. Religion and religious teachings seemed to sustain her and the people around her whom she had cultivated over the years satisfied her social needs.
Used to joint families and sons traditionally looking after ageing parents, many then reacted negatively and found it difficult to accept that an old woman would want to stay alone. That was 25 years ago. India's social pattern has seen many changes since. Yet, confronted with ageing people living on their own, the average Indian continues to react in a similar fashion.
However, social reactions notwithstanding, the numbers of ageing people, many in their 80s and yet maintaining individual establishments, are on the rise, especially in urban areas.
What lies behind this growing trend? Are these people who live alone content with their state of affairs or does the responsibility of running a home at this age and living all alone produce self pity and depression. Meeting a cross section of such senior citizens one felt that irrespective of whether they stayed alone out of choice or out of necessity they do share an outlook that is refreshingly optimistic and comfortingly confident. And quite surprisingly, considering their state of splendid isolation none of them seemed lonely. For as 84-year-old Vaidyanathan put it, "We are not going to be less lonely if we stay with our children for they are all caught up with their own lives."
While varied reasons are responsible for this choice of living on their own, the single most important factor is the break-up of the joint family and the increasing mobility of the Indian. Very few ageing people wish to uproot themselves from their familiar surroundings and move into unfamiliar terrain. This reluctance is most evident when their children are settled abroad.
"We have no friends and have to depend on everything from transport to companionship on our children" said an 80-year-old gentleman from Kotturpuram, Chennai. "I live alone much against my children's wishes but am happier this way. My children in the United States are busy with their lives and with both working I would spend huge chunks of time within four walls. And when my children come back they are too tired to go out. But they are weighed down by this huge feeling of guilt that they are neglecting me. This is not fair on them." he continues.
"Reluctance to burden children with an invalid grandparent or parent is also partly responsible" comments Vaidyanathan who took on the care of his 95-year-old mother-in-law after his wife's death. Kalpana Venkataraman, who, at 81, handles the total nursing and care of her 104-year-mother echoes this statement as does Ramiyengar aged 88 who takes care of his half-paralysed wife. With a sensitivity that belies the common belief that people grow self-centered as they grow older these persons protect their children from stress and in the process give themselves a purpose to their lives.
They run their own establishments, offer physical and emotional support systems if necessary, manage the day-to-day of financial matters and continue with a reasonable amount of social interaction. Going out might not be frequent but in their familiar surroundings there is a greater security of movement. A few do still drive or have access to a car and driver. To the many who cannot afford it, familiar terrain also makes taking autorickshaws or other modes of public transport relatively less mind-boggling. This independence that makes it possible for them to do their own banking and shopping is a boost to their self esteem and makes staying alone more than worthwhile. "It is easier to look after my assets staying on where I am at home, and this saves my children a lot of bother" says Bhagyam Krishnan explaining why she lives alone.
While life does move at a slower pace than in a younger past there is a quiet acceptance of this fact and most of them have learnt to create leisure activities that keep them occupied. "I read a lot and I have been teaching English to a few poor girls" says Pattammal "and this gives me mental stimulation and a feeling of being useful".
Given the limitations of age and money most of those old people seem to manage effectively to create a workable infrastructure that suits their needs. Medicines and grocery are ordered at home, food can be got on a daily basis from the many caterers that have sprung up and neighbours and friends do pitch in, in an emergency if children are not in the same town. Daily help is still available even if it means paying a little extra to hold on to them. Some even hire a companion if they can afford it.But all this self-reliance does not make their decision quite acceptable to their children. Many of them, especially sons, feel a sense of disquietude and a fear that they are not doing their duty to their parents. They worry about their parents' financial needs, their security and their health. "I realise that if I am incapacitated in any way, I shall have to move in with my son," says Kalpana Venkataraman, "but till such time why burden them". An opinion that is shared by most of the others. Emotional security is provided by just the thought that their children care for them and their grandchildren love them and there is no real desire to change the status quo unless failing health finally dictates the change.
It would be too much of a sweeping statement to say that the aged are happy only if they are on their own. There are many who hold diametrically opposite views. Besides, staying alone preconditions a certain attitude, a healthy bank balance and a healthier physical condition. What is needed however is a greater acceptance from society that old people are quite capable of staying alone if they so wish. They need neither sympathy nor fussing over. Rather emotional and if necessary discreet financial help from children and the confidence that they are always there when needed is more vital. We also need more social support systems that will make their living alone easier and do much for their self-esteem in their autumn years. The numbers of ageing people having to or wishing to stay alone will only rise over the years. It is time our society gears up for it.
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