By Uma Shashikant
My American friend was describing her dilemma. Her 92-year old mother had fallen and broken her hip. The family was struggling to figure how to take care of her. It did not help that the four children lived in four corners of the country, and all were over 60. But the old woman had remarried 15 years ago, and the husband was 16 years younger. The argument was he should take care of her, and not the children.
Americans do not suffer the burden of duty we hang around the necks of children. The elderly are fiercely independent, refusing to live with the children. The children also move out as soon as they become adults. However, it is not uncommon for children to take turns to support the aging parent. Parents and children do visit one another, and sometimes stay for some time. The mother-in-law problem in America is mostly about the wife’s often overbearing mother visiting.
While we in India speak about old age homes as if they are punishments highlighting the neglect of children, in America it is a choice an elder makes when living alone becomes unbearable. There is no expectation about “being taken care of” as they see their lives as distinct from that of their children, and it is unthinkable for both parties to live together and step on one another’s toes.
The Indian system had a hierarchical structure in which the family elders were treated with deference. The aging patriarch was the head of the family and without his blessings, no major decision was taken. The joint family system offered its support and benefits. Caring for the aged was not a problem. But that was a long time ago.
Indian families have long gone nuclear. Hosting and caring for elderly parents comes with its set of problems, but as is our wont, we wrap it in a blanket of righteousness, romanticising the difficult choices as the best ones. The daughter-in-law who cannot accommodate her parents-in-law is evil; and the children who live and work in distant cities or countries are shirkers and guilty of ingratitude. There surely are exceptions, but care of the elderly is a problem we have refused to solve satisfactorily, as we have mired it in emotional blackmail and a heavy dose of karmic consequences.
Since we dislike the American system of extreme independence for the elderly, we have to find solutions within our cultural context. Some of us in the late fifties made up these six rules for those times when we will age and become weak in our limbs. So many of us have cared for our parents, and know first hand that it is not an easy task.
First, we swear by our refusal to burden our children and rule out living with them. Finding the abode that keeps us safe and comfortable is important. Some have bought flats in retirement villas; some have booked houses along with close friends in the same building complex; some have moved into an independent house that is closer to where the children live. Settling down in a place that enables independent living, offers good everyday company and needs low ongoing maintenance and upkeep, is the first priority.
Second, the children are most willing to help and support in ways that would not impact their life. To expect the son to fly half way across the world each time someone takes ill is a lot to expect. There is no guilt-tripping the children about not being at our side. If they are able to plan trips when convenient to them, we will gracefully look forward to it and make the most of it, rather than judge them for not being at our service. If they can chip in monetarily, as most willingly do, we would accept that without pride coming in the way. We want to throw entitlement out of the window.
Third, we would not overdo the medical facility and healthcare needs. There is a responsibility we have for our limbs, and being fit and healthy is a goal we will not take lightly. We will focus on healthy living and put up the best fight against lifestyle diseases. However, we would not spend on invasive “modern” healthcare that hospitalises us and keeps us on humiliating life-support equipment. We will accept palliative care instead, managing pain and discomfort, and refuse needless intensive medical attention.
Fourth, we will seek purpose in our lives as long as we live, as that might be more important than the elusive pursuit of happiness. We would teach, write, work, serve, participate and volunteer in the community, engaging with younger people who might need these services. Active involvement in the world around us, beyond the lazy arm chair engagement in the social media, would provide us energy and enthusiasm we will need as we age. If there is no compulsion to earn an income, much of these activities will become pleasurable to pursue.
Fifth, we will ensure our assets are put to use by us in our lifetimes, allocating money for ourselves first, before leaving behind an inheritance. The savings of our lifetimes represent the outcomes of our earning abilities and spending habits. There is no point regretting what we have at retirement and worrying if it is adequate. With a sensible investment plan and a realistic lifestyle choice that matches the money we have, we should do well. We will allocate the assets we have for growth and income; for use, charity and bequest; and manage it well.
Sixth, we will focus on giving rather than hoarding. As we age we realise that there is so little that materials and things can do to our wellbeing. Into the 70s and 80s this feeling may only intensify. As we discover the joys of good company, great food, music and conversations, we will see that the best things that life has to offer do not need money or material. Charity must begin when that realisation sets in, so we can give before we go.
My adamant addition to that list: We will buy and use a sleek and stylish walking stick, so we don’t fall.
(The writer is Chairperson, Centre for Investment Education and Learning)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)