Learning to Live as an Old Man
My mother died in 1946 when I was 15. After about a year, in l947, our homes in Karachi and Panjab fell in newly formed Pakistan and we became refugees in Independent India. After wandering for several months my younger sister and I found refuge in Batala (a small town in Panjab). We lived there for 3 years and I graduated from a small local college in 1951. My father was in Karachi at the time of the birth of Pakistan. Few months later we got word that he moved safely to Bombay on a ship and set up his old hardware business there. Living alone in a new mammoth city did not suit him; he was lonely and very unhappy. I joined him after college and shared both his business and life for nearly a year. In that time I saw clearly that I was neither cut out for business, nor happy living in a city. I thought I would be happier in a small town or village relating with soil, plants, and animals. Therefore, after my sister’s marriage in 1952, I did not return to Bombay. For nearly 20 years after that my father and I were separated; he lived in an older people’s home in Haridwar, and my family and I periodically in rural India but mostly in upstate New York in America. I visited my father only after long intervals. In l971 I decided to return home to India and successively lived in Chandigarh, Delhi, and Rasulia in M.P. But every 4-5 years we went back to America for a year leaving my father homeless and to return to his Vanprastha Ashram (a sort of old peoples’ home).
My father tried to return ‘home’ to my family’s house every time we came to India; but he was always a stranger and very uncomfortable. Our culture had changed so much that to him we could be Martians. Having grown up in the era when people spent old age with their sons, he did not prepare for independent living in his old age. I think he knew very early that I would be a maverick, but he did not imagine that I would also be heartless. I have to admit that my guilt feeling has not completely gone away. For a time in my twenties and thirties I got so sucked into the Industrial Culture that I thought of career as most important. There was no need to waste time on an old parent. I did not think I owed him care and support. For were I not giving both to his grandchildren; wasn’t that sufficient? Doesn’t everyone do what I was doing? I did not then see clearly enough that my father, as a living individual, deserved attention in his own right.
My father had flaws like we all do. He was easily excitable and strong willed. He had difficulty letting go of past hurt feelings. Like a proud Pipal tree he did not know how to bend before strong winds of change as the wise bamboo. He had neither saved for old age nor acquired any useful adaptable skills. No wonder his pride got bruised wherever he went. He began therefore to avoid visiting relatives. I think mainly because in his eyes I was guilty of not doing my duty as a son, he was unable to communicate with me. For instance, whenever I asked if he needed money, he just said ‘no’. He probably expected that I would anyway thrust it into his pocket or bank account, but to the totally westernized me, a no meant no. Assuming that he still had what I had given him earlier; I foolishly failed to understand his need and did not give as frequently as I should have. I know now for sure I am guilty of not giving him enough. He did occasionally try to open a window between us; he even did naughty things in order to provoke me to look through it. But I was too dim to understand. His window did not work and the fault is entirely mine. Had I been kind and more generous, I would have looked behind the wall that separated us. Much too late, I now realize that all old people, regardless of what mistakes they have made in younger days, need and deserve our love and support. For the rest of my days I shall carry the burden of my omissions. Yet, in all this I see the hand of God, or the Great Wisdom that runs this universe, and know that what happens has to be the best at the time and in the circumstances: otherwise why should it happen?
I used to think what happened to my father will not happen to me because I am more educated and have a wider horizon. There was no doubt in my mind that the cultural difference between my children and me would not be as great as between my father and me. I also thought I was going to avoid his mistakes. Little did I know that some old age problems hit every individual no matter where schooled and how clever? Even the generation gap is a perennial problem, especially now when culture changes very fast. Hundred years ago older people were valued for their experience of living. Today it is not so because with big change in culture the experience of the older generation becomes redundant. College education is an impediment, not at all helpful. Savings are useful but only to a limited degree. Much else is needed, especially a strong ethical back bone. I now realize that love and ethics are not merely pious words. Their power is far greater than I ever imagined.
Old people do inevitably become slow, wrinkled, sloppier and touchy. They also seemingly become callous, insensitive, less caring, and weak. Some of these changes relate more to insecurity and other such social circumstances than to the old body. With love of family and community and a strong sense of security old people can change into valued elders who share wisdom and generate sound judgment and stability around them.
Lessons for the Old
1. Before one gets old, one must provide for old age. Some money is essential, but no amount may prove enough. Also, mere money cannot solve all problems. More important than money is a house regardless of location. When a good city house cannot be maintained because of high living cost, it can be sold. With the money realized one can buy a house in a town or village and have enough left over for daily expenses for years. The point is; we do have choices if we are flexible enough.
2. It is important to have simple and useful skills. The list to choose from is endless, for example cooking, cleaning floors and furniture, laundry, gardening, sewing, singing, painting, calligraphy, flower arrangement. Practice of these skills brings happiness and a sense of self reliance; the aged are meaningfully occupied.
3. Most important skill one can acquire is the ability and knowledge to live simply, at very low money cost, and by causing least harm to the environment. This can give old persons a sense of security that possessions never can. I am sure all of us know that the aged poor in our society feel more secure and content than the rich. Living simply is no hardship it’s a gift. Eating simple, fresh, and wholesome food and keeping minimum of furniture and few clothes makes ones life healthy and unencumbered.
4. Many old people slowly become hard of hearing. I often congratulate such people; for they no longer need to hear gossip and other trivia. It seems to me that partial loss of hearing in old age is a gift of God. Most young people resent a nosy old parent or aunt. The old can greatly help themselves by leaving the young alone. Furthermore, they should never argue either to prove a point or defend a view point.
5. We old people raised the young with love and a great deal of sacrifice. We should readopt those attitudes. Without doubt we will be rewarded in the same coin.
6. To do the above, one needs a spiritual foundation. Our immediate physical settings are inevitably full of hard knocks simply because we are in bodies separate from each other. In truth we are not separate. We are the one Life that makes all bodies alive; we are also Nature and the Universe. We are an indivisible part of an all-encompassing unity. We therefore never die, only our bodies do.
7. Love and compassion bind us all. When we know this it becomes easy to forgive insults and remember received kindnesses and respects.
8. Dare to be free from social obligations of younger days. For example if you do not wish to attend a wedding, just say sorry. Being old you will be easily forgiven.
9. This list is inexhaustible. Let us end by remembering that a very valuable attitude to acquire is humility; not servility but the sense of incompleteness that comes from realizing that in truth we are Life itself and in daily life we mistakenly act as mere bodies.
Lesson for the young
It seems not only possible but also eminently prudent that the young try to turn the old people into happy and useful elders. All they need is love, support, and a sense of security. What is given with love benefits the giver even more than the recipient? Imagine the incalculable benefit to children growing up in the shadow of grandparents!
April 2, 2005