My uncle lives in a community of, for and by retired people in South India where they live in private apartments and all their daily needs such as food, housekeeping, and medical care are provided by the community and charged for. He is 72 and suffers from severe hip and spine problems that force him to be confined to his bed for weeks at a time. Rest of the time he is well enough not to depend on anyone to get by. His wife is 64 and has bronchial problems. Her mother who is 94 stays with them. She is perhaps in better health than both of them except that she is weak due to her age. It is a sensible arrangement they have chosen as both their sons work and live abroad and here their days go by without having to worry about daily irritants in terms of house help and other logistics. But then there are times when they could do with some support from younger members of the family and their non-availability hits home hard.

Last month my aunt had to undergo Coronary artery by-pass surgery and she almost decided against the operation because there was no one around to help her during the post-operative phase and she was worried about leaving her mother alone without any help. Given the economic conditions and job losses, they did not want to ask their sons to take extended leave. And the sons did not insist on coming either. I am not judging them as this is perhaps just illustrative of how relationships have become secondary to employment interests. I almost wrote family ‘responsibilities’ there instead of relationships but I am no longer sure of how much responsibility the children have toward their parents. It seems that , like in the west, we have also come to believe that parents bring their children into this world so they need to accept responsibility for them while children owe nothing to their parents and so filial responsibility is probably an outdated concept.

She finally went through the surgery with help from extended family who gave her post operative care and made sure that her mother was not left alone.
While I was with my aunt she said something that made me think:
the doctors tell me that I have got another lease of life, at least another 10 years with this operation. But tell me what do I want another ten years for?” Perhaps it is the pain that she was going through that made her say that; or perhaps she meant it because she really doesn’t think she needs another 10 years. And she is a person who is highly educated and has varied interests such as books, music and crosswords. It is not lack of interests but a sense of purposelessness that made her say this.

Improvements in health facilities have given us extra years to live but neither our social system nor our infrastructure have changed enough to help us use these extra years purposefully. Traditionally old age was a period spent in pursuit of religious activities, accumulating good Karma away from the demands of the material world. But what about those who are not interested in such pursuits? They have a choice of baby sitting their grandchildren or watching unlimited hours of soaps, cricket or news. If one is an out doors person opportunities are restricted:
In cities like Bangalore, many new residential colonies do not even have proper footpaths and it is quite unsafe for the elderly to venture out on these roads even for a walk.
Very few areas have even a tiny park for these people to meet and spend the evening.
Concerts and plays mean commuting long distances for which transport is either unavailable or unaffordable in retirement.
Even public libraries are few and far between.
Most activities for entertainment and amusement are, in any case, aimed at a wallet-share of the young with a high spending ability and willingness.
Confined for the most part within the four walls of their homes, it isn’t a surprise that they do not have much to look forward to.

These are reflective of our attitude toward old age. Maami ,in a very interesting post here calls this attitude ageism. Such attitudes have been ingrained in our collective psyche as our culture and more specifically Hinduism imposes 'borders' on the ageing process. It clearly defines the stages of one's life, and people seem to take it that they cannot do certain things at certain ages, whereas the reverse in fact is true in today's economic, globalised world: feel free to do the things you always wanted to do, and if you can afford it, enjoy the best of what is available, don't care about what the world thinks of you as long as you think it is the right thing to do.
Spend your day at a satsang by all means if that is your idea of finding meaning in life but do not judge someone else who prefers to spend a day at the mall or who likes to relax with a pedicure or a facial. Finally they are at the age when they can make informed choices without being told what is the ‘thing to do’ or the ‘way to be’. Both airlines and railways have concessions for senior citizens. People should make use of these and travel to places together if their health allows them to. Above all, they must accept responsibility of ageing on themselves, i.e. not be fatalistic, exercise regularly, be disciplined in one's dietary habits, and search/reach out for those habits that reinforce critical requirements in healthy ageing, such as socialising with similar interests-seeking peoples, joint activities/outings, charity work,. Markets will keep up with their demands once they know that their wallets are available to plunder.

Old’ should stop being a bad word. I heard from a friend that in Singapore, it is now quite common to see large numbers of 50+ Chinese going to bangra classes, as they have learnt that it is very good for their bones, keeps their muscles toned , and is a good way to meet other people! People in the west talk about beginning life at 40 and even get married at 50 and 60 when they find their ideal companion for their sunset years. It may be a long way before we begin to accept such ideas but I think if people could liberate themselves from thinking and feeling ‘old’ there are still many ways in which they could make their old age enjoyable. The best age-defying mechanisms come from our thoughts and not from applying creams and lotions. I do not mean to over- romanticize old age as the high point of one’s life which it certainly isn’t; but my point is just that when you know something to be inevitable you might as well be prepared to face it with grace. It just seems the smart thing to do. There is a very thin line between dying alone and living free and it is completely decided by the way you decide to look at old age.

*Vanaprastha - is the third stage in the 4 main stages of life classified in Hiduism - Brahmacharya( student), grihastha (householder) Vanaprastha (retirement from worldly attachments) and Sanyasa (renunciation)
33 Responses
  1. Jina Says:

    This post has made me think!
    And have a new perspective on lot of things-Yeah 'Old' should not be a bad word especially when associated with people.

    Btw, I love ur blog and is Akilas friend

  2. Two things.

    In the intial euphoria over educating your children and giving them a helpful shove in their first steps into the promised land (aka USA), folks went overboard. For the parents, it is enough even if one of their children, male or female remains within the country. And this has to be a combined conscious decision by the children. Strangely, our children pickup values that the parents try and initiate. The ability to be unpopular , not flow with the herd, have one less car and two less bedrooms, needs guts. Some parents are successful in planting these values in their children. Most do not.

    The second thing is, in this day and age, when parents are fairly well educated and travelled, they need to innovate in their way. Blog. You can join lots of interested people blogging about specific interests, without exerting too much. Darlene, who is 83, and blogs from Tucson,AZ, is one such, and its a n honor to read her.....

    E-Vanaprasthashram ?

  3. The problem with Indians is that they think of themselves as 'old' as soon as they cross 50...If people changed their mindset, lives would be more fulfilling...

    I feel that children should not be 'forced' to give up their lives to take care of their parents...Resentment builds up...If they willingly take care, then there's nothing like it...

    I know I will tell my daughter to go wherever she wants to if it'll help her career or life and so I can't expect her to drop everything and come home to look after me when I need help...

  4. Sri Says:

    Hi Usha

    Very nice post that made me think seriously about the issue of old age.i am reminded of my relatives in Canada..both the husband and wife are 65+ but they are so active..they visit India twice a year and are so chilled out..

    There is an ad of an insurance company being telecast during the IPL where the wife shouts at her retired husband who spends all his day hanging out with friends..the theme of the ad is when you have saved enough for the future,u can sit back and relax...


  5. diya Says:

    Usha, the reason why our children think that employment is more important than relationships is that we teach that to them all through our lives. I have told my brat that we are in Bangalore and not in Delhi with her grandparents because her father's office is here. she is not convinced yet, but soon she will be and that is what she is going to do in her life, because I will encourage her to follow her dreams. Once she gets used to a certain lifestyle, she will be obliged by the rules of her know, we should be able to fend for ourselves, I say. I am not averse to looking after my grandchildren...but I will surely plan ahead for a wonderful 'old' age

  6. Mama - Mia Says:

    i hope i can be healthy enough to have a life of my own when I am old! though already creaking bones tell me otherwise!

    yet, its important that we indeed live it up and keep ourselves occupied as we grow older and responsibilities in absolute terms dwindle!

    My ma in law turned 60 recently and if you call her more often than not she will say she is too busy to talk! and my pa in law who doent do anything is still happy in the state of inerrtia!

    so i guess, a lot has to do with our mindsets than anything else!

    and while children having very little inclination to take care of their parents is one side of it, the other side also is some parents' absolute refusal to acknowledge that life the way they have known it, has changed irrevocably! sad, but true!

    i am hoping to travel the world and take those salsa lessons in my sunset years! ;)

    lovely post as always!



  7. Raj Says:

    That was a great post, Usha. Thought-provoking. I enjoyed the prose too.

    The extended life span is resulting in a demographic profile with more healthy,senior citizens around. Even forgetting the aspect of filial responsibility,etc- a great business opportunity presents itself. Entertainment avenues, programs, restaurants, ovies, designed for senior people will find ready takers. The son in USA who has the money but not the time can wash his guilt by sponsoring such events/facilties for his folks at home. I think I will put on my entrepreneurial cap......

  8. Indian in NZ Says:

    Coincidentally, it was just this morning when I was going to work a little late, I saw a lot of old people at the bus stop and I was appreciating the new policy of the govt for free bus ride for seniors between 9am and 6pm ( off peak hours). It has made it easy for them to get out of the house since most of them are too old to even drive and hence they are confined into their houses or resthomes. Its so nice to see them out and about and using the free ride to go and meet their friends, family or pursue their hobbies even if they have to go to the other end of the town.

    Another news item I read just before I logged in today is about a police constable's comment when an oldie crashed his car into a fence. She was quick to blame the driver just because he was an old man and she said something about taking away his licence. I am really happy that an organisation called 'ageconcern' which works with old people has taken offence to this constable's remark because mistakes can happen at any age and just because one person is old deosn't mean that one accident and you take their license ( read independence) away specially when they are certified by the doctors to be fit to drive.

    I do agree with most of the comments that it really depends on the attitude of the retired or old person. They can still make their lives fulfilling with a little help from the govt.

  9. usha2 Says:

    This is the third such story i have heard in recent older cousin who just had both knees replaced, without her (US) children in attendance, a neighbour who passed away after coronary by pass in Bangalore with 3 almost middle aged children in the US...

    when my grandmother was hospitalized, we, the adult grand children took turns to stay with her at night, so that our older parents could go home and rest..when my mother was ill, we, the (by now older) children took turns to stay in hospital with her while the grandchildren went home :-)

    as you say, i am also not judging,because times change, but i have observed that where there is a real deep relationship, one wants to do things for the other and all other issues become secondary and vice versa .. this is really a commentary on the state of present day relationships..

  10. Praveen Says:

    A distant uncle of mine deposited huge amount of money in an ashram in coastal Kerala, where he was promised a good care like home. His kids are abroad and he has'nt shared a good relationship with his wife for the 30 years.
    He quit the ashram in just 3 months as a nauseating feeling of boredom took over. Thankfully the admin refunded the money and he got himself a nice little flat in T'drum and is spending time with young boys discussing classical music, movies and advising people on investments.

  11. Shilpa Says:

    You are so right. Moving to the US made me look at growing old in a whole new way. While I was used to calling 50 year old people 'old', now my whole perspective has changed. Life truly begins at 40 or 50 or 60 if you choose to. I keep telling my mom, who crossed 50 last year, that this is the perfect time to go to that reading class or anything else that she has been wanting to do, but could not because of her kids and work and home blah blah blah.
    You write well.

  12. Hey
    As Jina commented,this post made me think.
    Not sure what to say, the state of being old sounds scary and being a burden.


  13. Suku Says:

    you are so right is all in the mind.
    as always quite thought provoking.
    i just hope that by the time i reach 'vanaprastha', i am still living it up!!

  14. Laksh Says:

    Thought provoking post as usual Usha. These thoughts have been circling my mind for a while now and reading your post has made it even more current.

  15. Anamika Says:

    Lovely post. During my last trip to India, there were 2 older ladies sitting in the same row as me and we got talking to one of them. Turned out they were a group of 6 women all over 75 years of age and they were going on a 2 week Europe tour one week of which was to be on a boat sailing down the Siene. The bonhomie and spirit among them had to be seen. One of them was travelling business class and she would keep coming over to chat with her friends and everytime she left, the others would wink/smirk/smile. Some inside joke I am sure but it was very heart warming.

  16. maami Says:

    Thoughtful piece Usha.

  17. Boredom and alienation are there for everybody right from childhood to old age. But in old age, time-bound "meaningful" pursuits (earning, raising a family, concern about the younger generation at home, building a home) become non-existent and lead to a gradual increase in sorrow and loneliness.

    Some elderly folks do manage to create either a) sustainable meaningful pursuits (becoming active in their community, social work, writing letters to the newspapers, writing letters to the younger generations in their family) or b) surrogate activities (walks, TV, religious rituals, learning a new craft etc.)

    But creating avenues for activities is no remedy for the sickness that is a human being's essential loneliness and separation. It is at best a palliative. Some manage to have palliatives which work in each phase of their lives, some don't.

    The significance of being alive is not to be found in biological and social goals. In my understanding, it can be found only in discovering the wonder of being alive in this eternal, infinite universe, and in living that wonder every moment, and in living free from the illusion and the neediness of one's self.

    No time is too late to embark on freedom from the human condition.

  18. Anonymous Says:

    Your post is very thought provoking. Being in US , I really feel the pinch as I think about my parents all the time and they are old, living in Banglore.Luckily, I have two sisters who stay very close by and run to their defense every time.
    As you said,being healthy is very important and expecting filial responsibility from children is ruled out in this era.Though I would say that it is easier said than done. Parents are most of the time dependent on their children either emotionally, monetarily or physically. Sometimes, these dependencies take the form of love.I don't have any kids so I don't want to comment on what to expect.

    A well written post too.Btw, I have added you to my blogroll.

  19. Hip Grandma Says:

    You are right and one should age not only gracefully bit also confidently.I've seen 50+,near retirement people hiding the fact that they are diabetic the same way that one tends to hide grey hair.Let us accept that we are indeed getting old, that it is a natural process and have the confidence to say I still have the will and energy to do so many things of my choice and if I must withdraw myself from active life and i'll do it my way.

  20. Usha Says:

    Jina: Thank you.

    Ugich: I agree - blogging is a very useful way to connect with the world without limits. More people should come forward to share their experiences and perspectives. Darlene - I must check out her blog.
    E-Vanaprastham - what a brilliant concept!

    sraboney:I think they begin to consider themselves old by the time they are 40. No, Parents should not force children into anything but I am surprised that it doesn't come naturally to the children that their parents might need them too even if they don't mention it. But then I am from another school.

    Sri:Yes I love those advertisements - nice concept.

    Diya: Even if we do not teach them that, it is what they see in the world around them. As children have adopted the ways of the west, parents should begin to emulate the parents of the west too and learn to stand on their own feet till their end.

    Mama-Mia:Start exercising NOW young lady, you have NO excuse for those creaking bones!
    I am thinking of Salsa too or may be bangra.

    raj: Thank you. Please initiate something - senior citizens definitely need more avenues for entertainment and pleasure. Let us exploit the guilt of NRI children and also make sure that people learn to enjoy old age.

    2 b's mom:Good and safe public transport will go along way in helping old people get out more often and this will keep them much happier.
    I definitely would not want to drive on these roads when I am 60 and 70.

    usha 2:I meant it to be just an observation. We need to realize that things have changed and in stead of moping about our loneliness we need to take things in our hands and live it up. After all, we have earned it all our lives.

    praveen: Yes, many people are happier feeling useful by contributing to society rather than by withdrawing from it all. They need to be with younger people rather than retire to a retirement colony. it is the pain of having to drive on bangalore roads that keeps me confined to my house most of the time.

    Shilpa: If only public transport was better, I am sure more older people will venture out for such activities.

    Mikhil: It is mostly in our hands whether we end up being a burden or enjoying the freedom of retirement.

    Sbora: I hope so too! best wishes!!


    Anamika:These were Indian women? wow! I wish I could do something like that.

    Maami: My maami's words had triggered the thoughts and your post catalysed it. Thanks to you.

    Harmanjit:Very true. Some people find happiness and comfort by being with those they love. But if it is not to be we need to find ways to keep ourselves happy.
    Thanks for the link. Will check it out.

    Suroba: We are still in a transitional stage so these problems will exist. Once the mindset changes and the external world keeps up with the demands of senior citizens, there is definitely hope for a better life for older citizens.
    Thanks for adding me.

    Hipgran: We either refuse to accept old age or wallow too much in it. Why not just treat it as a natural process and keep doing what our body and mind tell us to do?

  21. Hari the Hadron Says:

    "The best age-defying mechanisms come from our thoughts and not from applying creams and lotions"

    Those were golden words, Usha. The problem is our planning for life after retirement is limited to taking some Lifetime Pension Plan Policy. Even our society dont really envisage a life for people after 60, so they are merely left to exist and brood for the rest of their life. Most of the octagenarians are the ones who instilled a new passion for life after 60.

    Even from the health point of view, we dont invest enough on our health in our 40s with a view to reap the benefits in our 60s.

    So just as we plan our education, career and family we should also plan our life after 60.

  22. Anamika Says:

    No, they were Caucasians :) But yes, why not Indian women. Hope thats already happening.

  23. Prathibha Says:


    You seem to target NRI kids about not taking care, what about kids who live in Inida and don't attend to their parents needs?

    Your answer to Raj's omment "Let us exploit the guilt of NRI children" I din't like it.

  24. Hi Usha, thoughtful post, relevant to so many of us. I wrote about this a while ago when I read an article in Outlook about groups formed by NRI parents - (requires registration).

    It's the same story here with aged parents on their own for the most part.

  25. Anonymous Says:

    It's like being a baby all over again. Only, this time you are painfully aware of your helplessness and dependencies.

    Wonderful post, as always.


  26. Usha Says:

    Hari: Yes, people must develop new interests which keep them alive at any age. We are stuck with our traditional expectations in a changed society.

    Anamika: I think it would soon begin to happen, when I collect a bunch of friends and go on a cruise. :)

    Prathiba: I had no agenda about NRI kids or otherwise. I mentioned my cousins because it is a real life example. they could have been in Delhi and still been unable to come. And the focus of the post is NOT about children not taking care; it is about parents keeping themselves independent of their kids (NRI or otherwise) by finding other pursuits.

    Sujatha: Parents their are on their own but there is so much they can do if they choose to; here we need to go a long way in terms of societal stereotyping of old age and infrastructure support.

    littereteuse; So true.And it is possible to get over that sense of helplessness in second childhood.
    Thank you.

  27. Hi Usha,

    A few years back, I had written about a related, and according to some, a much more "depressing" subject, the inevitable deterioration of the body, taking care of the aged, and their own facing-up of their mortality.

    You, and the readers of your blog, may be interested in it:

  28. Pragya Says:

    Always a pleasure to read your posts.

    I read something last night, something a parent said (I wish I knew who said it)- "Children are at the center of a parent's universe but parents are at the periphery of their children's universe."

    I wish I knew who said that but it clearly shows what a one way street of love it is between the generations.

  29. "Old", abroad, doesn't mean 50+ as you write..but 80+!

    Here, old age + financial and physical health is the only way one can enjoy one's later years. Otherwise, "live long" is a curse, not a good wish.

    I am actually thankful that my parents are no more....

    And every day I say this shlOkA:

    "anAyAsEna maraNam, vinA dainyEna jeevam

    kripayA pAhi mAm shambhO, sharaNA gatha vathsala."

    (An effortless death and a life without dependency....confer this benison on me, O Shiva, who gives parental love to those who surrender to You.)

  30. Vijay Says:

    This is probably the longest comment I have written ever :-)

    I've got a number of friends who face this problem..parents on one side and overseas jobs/careers (and kids) on the other.

    Somehow old age homes give you this image of Grey buildings with rude wardens... although some good ones have cropped up..the "stigma" remains.

    One of the reasons we moved back to India was to be there when people needed us..of course a good job helped...

    Though I live separately from my parents (everyone likes the independence), I am 15 min drive away. I would personally NEVER do the old age home thing. Its just not done...

    Again my views entirely...

  31. Anonymous Says:

    I dont actually know how I stumbled upon your blog, but this post is INCREDIBLE. As you rightly pointed out, need to take the best from the East (respect for elders, and responsibility towards the family, looking inwards, less obsession with the material world) and the West (respect for our own bodies -- gymming, taking vitamins, manicures, what-have-yous) to make our lives optimally enriching.

  32. SS Says:

    Usha, a thoughtful post, something that has been on my mind for a very long time. There are two things I wanted to add to the already wonderful discussion:
    a) I find a common problem in a lot of senior couples is a lack of relationship. They have spent their entire youth focusing so much on their kids that they missed developing a relationship with each other. And that shows up during old age when children are no longer there as the glue. It turns out that the only common interest they had was their children! If there's one thing that I've learned from my previous generation, it is this -- build a strong foundation with your spouse and develop your own interests irrespective of the children. Otherwise, you will land up being permanently emotionally dependent on them. They become your only "purpose" in life.

    b) You are so right about our infrastructure being woefully unfriendly to seniors (and others who need help like the sick or the disabled). That would be so so helpful.
    But I do think that not all children are insensitive to their parents' needs. Sometimes, it is just too much responsibility. After all, they have a family and careers of their own to take care of. They may have children too, you know. Earlier, your son and daughter-in-law had a societal obligation. But with so many women working, they feel obliged to look after their own parents -- Should a girl's parents not expect any care from their daughter and son-in-law?
    I have a feeling this is also a problem, especially if the woman has to stop working for the sake of her family and her husband refuses to help her parents out.
    The bitterness begins and both sets of parents could suffer.

    It's complicated. I hope it is transitional phase and we will figure out a middle path.

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