The Difficulty of Growing Old as Indians

In November 2014, I had made a visit to India that was memorable in many ways meeting family and friends and above all my visit to Arunachala even if only for a few hours.

During this visit, my conversation with friends would often turn to a discussion on how their parents were and who is looking after them. Whether this was some premonition of what was to happen in my own life with my parents who at that time lived independently in Sydney for more than 10 years could well be a moot point given the demise of my father in early February 2015.

One of my friend’s father is now 99 years old and as sprightly as ever and lives with his son’s family for company while still being financially independent with income from his investments to support all of his needs and much more to help with charities.  I can recall that it was such a pleasure meeting this parent some two years ago and in some ways I regret not being able to meet him on my recent visits to Chennai.

My friend’s father is also Appa to us all as well. He is an energetic, devout old man who is now requesting his son, my classmate, to organize a passport for him to visit his family in Singapore. I suspect that it may well be a world record, if not for an Indian, for being the oldest person to apply for a passport to travel overseas!

In that visit, I also spent a little over an hour with the Appa of another friend. This gentlemen is a renowned Botanist and academic in Chennai who at 91 lives with his son and family. While his eyes may be fading, his penchant for reading has not. He devours books, writes reviews and even mentors the odd PhD student.

It was his son who drove me to Arunachala and I thought a DVD on the life of Shri Ramana Maharishi would be appropriate a gift for him. It was no surprise to me that we got into a discussion on the life of sages, Upanishads, God and consciousness!

Many of the older folks who are former Civil Servants and Academics do enjoy a healthy pension that far exceeds their monthly income of their younger days when they were raising a family. The comfort of living with their children is for both emotional and physical support given their old age and thankfully these folks are not ‘dependent’ on their children for funds while they still continue to help them and support their many chosen charities. Conscientious children of these income rich older folks do not wish their parents live in an old age home and hence cater to their health and emotional needs as best they can.

Others told me that many old people only lead a poor quality of life though their sons and daughters were well off and could afford the care required for these elders even if in a retirement home that is now popular amongst the well-to-do families. These retirement villages or homes offer greater social interaction relative to being confined to a house where the sons and daughters have their own busy lives to lead. Yet they said there is that inherent cultural resistance or a feeling of guilt as to what other people might say that their children have ‘abandoned’ them to a retirement home!

There is another story that was told about our elders who did not have a Civil Service or Academic pension. These elders had much wealth in land, bricks and mortar and that these have been usurped over time by their very children and extended family members.  With no steady income stream like a pension, these folks have little discretionary funds and hence are made solely dependent on their children. These elders are no actuarial experts and hence may have little or no idea of their own long term cash flow needs to cover routine living expenses, healthcare, travel and social requirements.

Then there were other cases too where failing eyesight and health have compelled these elders to trust their children or even friends to help them with banking and other financial matters while shuttling between cities within India or even between continents to spend a few months by rotation with each of their children.

One could conclude that these elders who were once asset rich and who are now cash poor, may have been foolish and fooled at the same time. Had they better managed their assets and bought a small retirement unit, they would have had enough in their kitty for a long life with adequate personal attendance and affordable health care.

Asset rich and cash poor elders may not be aware of reverse mortgages and other financial instruments that would give them a substantial steady income to live with 24 by 7 care if they have no other source of income. But I suspect few would be daring enough to do this given their cultural disposition to leave assets for their sons and daughters!

These issues are complex with the interplay of so many factors. We could argue that it is an outdated value system of these elders of wanting to leave ‘assets’ for their children that has made life harder for them. Further, the deeply ingrained expectation that their daughter or son must take care of them in their old age still runs deep in these folks. Most of these parents have provided an invaluable asset of good education barring a few exceptions where the child suffers a disability and/or has learning difficulties requiring on-going attention and secure arrangements for these children’s future.

But there are some good news stories too that I am aware of. I am heartened that there are a few elders who value their independence above all else and call the shots and live alone in their own home even when separated from their children across cities and continents. Some may have food being brought to them by service providers with family members living close by to help them out as we find in our communities here. These elders live comfortably in their home teaching music, painting, knitting and other things to engage both young and old and above all being both mentally and physically active.

In one of my earlier blogs here at Turtledge titled The Dharma of Inheritors (6 Feb 2012), I raised these issues after viewing a popular Tamil discussion forum (titled ‘Vaanga Pesalam” – come let us talk). The visit of last November merely rekindled these issues with fresh insights from real world stories of the life of our elders.

All these stories are clear pointers and lessons as to how we must plan our own life into the sunset. Suffice it to say little wonder there is this hard wired difficulty wherever we are given the complex mix of our inherited values, cultural scripting, expectations and upbringing of growing old as Indians.

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6 thoughts on “The Difficulty of Growing Old as Indians

  1. Very well written. You have covered all the issues involved. Taking care of one’s health – physical and financial – is absolutely critical to a secure life in retirement. I think many in our generation do realize this.

  2. Great write-up on the issues of growing old with issues. Spectacular point on cultural expectations & conditioning — we’re unaware of our built-in cultural responses that become part of our personality even.

    And then there are those without issues who also are at the mercy of nephews & other relatives dangling their assets in exchange for care & comfort. Losing the spouse adds to the dependency.

    I’m amazed & salute your parents for being so independent well into their 80’s and that too abroad even though you were pretty close-by I assume. It’s pretty daunting to think of it even from where I’m. In stark contrast here in the U.S. my cousin has re-established the extinct joint family system — her household consists of her, her husband, 2 married sons (in their 30’s) & their family plus my cousin’s mom. They believe in being highly inter-dependent & taking care of each other.

    Keep yourself fiscally ,physically & mentally sound is the mantra to chant as we age into senior citizenship.

    • This is a complex and touchy subject as we all know. We tend to sweep things under the carpet and imagine all is fine when they are not. A modern day solution could be family owned town houses or flats adjacent each other where you have both independence and interdependence. The important thing is to live in dignity and lead a fulfilling life. Atul Gawande’s book On Being Mortal is one I recommend that has many pointers on ageing gracefully.

  3. Hi Cheenu,
    As always you have covered this touchy topic eloquently from what you saw and heard in your last trip to India about parents life in their old age. One of my close relatives who are close to 90s, are living with their son and Daughter in law . Both were very healthy and very active well into their early 80s. Ever since the father had a moderate paralysis 5 years ago, the son has arranged for a lady to take care of his parents. The parents felt bad that their son was incurring lot of expenses towards their medical treatment including physiotherapy and the cost of home care nurse and decided to transfer their bank accounts with moderate savings and the monthly pension of rs 35000 to their son This year mother rolled down from their low bed a few times in her sleep and lost her confidence. In the meantime, the DIL was getting impatient and after debating to put them in a old age home, they arranged for a night time nurse fearing criticism from the relatives. The parents appreciate this gesture but still not happy because they can visibly see that the son and DIL are getting tired of them, don’t talk to them much after they return from work, leaving the nurses to take care of their needs. Both of them may think that they are right in how they feel about the situation, but sometimes I think, if the parents are not healthy and financially dependent on their children they should not live long but you can’t turn somebody’s life off like a light switch! With the increase in longitivtiy the society is bound to see many such cases.

    • Yes, aging gracefully and being self-aware is key. The best thing is not to have expectations of any kind and be independent. Those of us who only have daughters have no other choice than to last it out as best we can. What I know we MUST do is not leave liabilities and problems for our children to address because of our failings. But then, what is to happen will happen.

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