There is a lot of talk about changing mindsets of older people — about living by themselves, maybe in old age homes, give up notions of joint family and wanting to hold power. But before we go about changing their mindsets, let us first examine societal attitudes towards them as a group starting with the term itself. I got curious about it and looked up the thesaurus and I found so many synonyms for old age, most of them unflattering:
Infirmity, agedness, autumn of life, caducity, debility, declining years, decrepitude, dotage, ELDERLINESS, evening of life, feebleness, geriatrics, GOLDEN AGE, GOLDEN YEARS, latter part of animate life, longevity, oldness, retirement age, senectitude, senescence, senility, seniority, winter of life.
Add to it others like cantankerous, boring, stubborn, troublesome, interfering and more and you have neatly packaged them into the least loved chunk of population.
What a lot of derogatory and negative words to be associated with age! Who would want to be identified with them whether young or old? And even the capitalized words are condescending and mollifying at best. The only word that sounds respectable is elderliness. And I hope it is meant in a good way – that of being an elder.
Disclaimer: I am not judging either the young or the old in these posts. My sincere attempt would be to portray both the generations with understanding and appreciation, so bear with me if I sometimes appear to be taking the side of the one or the other. I assure you that the balance would be restored in the very next para or at the latest in the next post!
Coming back to the post, how does the word Elder sound? Isn’t it perfect to describe someone who is older in age, experienced and weathered in the nitty-gritty of the world?
When we alter perceptions and definitions even slightly, it makes a lot of difference to our attitude towards the subject. Remember how the word ‘handicapped’ was found offensive and replaced with ‘differently abled’? It had initially come for a lot of criticism since it was felt that reality didn’t change with a change of an adjective. But it brought a slow change in perception. Notice how the word immediately conjures up images of a lame or blind person as being endowed with some other exceptional ability, doesn’t it? If you haven’t given it a thought, please do it now!
So why not a different word for old age? Why do we insist on such negative images about ageing?
Now let’s say, wise, experienced, mature, seasoned, veteran, an old hand, knowledgeable, weathered, war horse, sage, mellow, sagacious….
Try superimposing these words when thinking/referring/writing about an elder and soon the perception about age and ageing will begin changing, slowly at first, but surely. And when they begin perceiving themselves in such terms, things will change for the better for all concerned, not just the elders. I agree that all elders would not have these attributes either wholly or in part, but so do elders don’t have the negative attributes, but get saddled with them. Wisdom especially is not always the result of advancing years.
For, we are talking about a huge chunk of population and can’t afford to have it being insecure, defeated, scared and unwanted by the rest. So let us accept them for what they are – the older versions of the young. What the elders should remember is that they too had once been young just as the young should remember that youth is not permanent.
So instead of shaming them or comparing them with more active elders, encourage and motivate them to become active, seek social circles and be socially productive in whatever small way possible. For all you know, they are simply overwhelmed by the baggage they have been saddled with and could do with some help in regaining their self confidence. It is not as if we don’t have active and productive elders amongst us. In fact, we have way too many of them. Others who might not be as active might have genuine problems, including financial ones.
Not too long back, many cultures including the western culture which we unfailingly turn to when we want to junk our traditions — held elders in esteem in the home, society and country. Slowly things began changing, first in the west, of course. We attributed it to the changing times, development, faster pace of life and stressful living that made elders redundant and many began shrinking in their own selves. And uncharitable words like the ones I have given above began labeling them, making them more insecure and unsure of themselves. And when a vulnerable section of the society becomes insecure, it can alter the entire demography.
I am sure it would come as a surprise to know that in Vedic times, the life expectancy was over 80 — 84 years to be precise. They divided it into four parts or ashramas of 21 years each viz., Brahmacharya, Grahastha, Vanaprastha and Sanyasa. My young friend Bhagyashree has shared the physical division of these groups in her comment in the earlier post about how the four ashramas were arranged around the temple in concentric circles. The ashramas were not limited to only the upper castes as learning, running a household including earning to do it and then passing on the skills to the next generation — were common to everyone.
Do note that after just 21 years spent in the pursuit of worldly things, the responsibilities were handed over and the elders assumed just an advisory role. It doesn’t mean ‘interference’ by any stretch of imagination. So all elders who try to run their children’s lives, please take note!
During Vanaprasthashrama the elders are free to leave the household management and be mentors to the society at large. A time to put the wisdom and knowledge to a wider use. This is also the time when they went on yatras and pilgrimages, met saints and went deeper into spiritual pursuits and contemplation as a precursor to the sanyasa stage, which again does not mean donning ochre robes and going off to the mountains, but embracing a spiritual life that prepared one for the ultimate passing on. So you see, the concept of ‘retirement’ as we know it today is not rooted in our culture at all.
Today the vedas make as much sense as then, if only we were to look deeper and learn instead of talking about it superficially with a permanent sneer in place and blame all ills on traditions and custom.
One book which had extensively dealt with the concept of ‘eldering’ was The Giver, about which I had written here. A carefully regulated futuristic society as the one described in the book, which had controlled everything including nature, still needed the Elder, who was the storehouse of memories long erased from the people’s minds. He had to hark back to those memories to find solutions to the unsolvable problems. It is sci-fi, but still captures the essence of ‘eldering’ so well.
I know, I know. The youth of today is very intelligent and well informed. But while your elders might not be able to figure out how to work a smartphone or know how Google works, they have something more valuable – knowledge born out of experience. That is one thing that has to come only with years — well mostly!
But it is prudent not to generalize, stereotype and worst of all, compare the one with the other. Nowhere is the grass greener than the elder in another family. What we appreciate and love in other elders, we find insufferable in our own families, especially if they happen to be the in-laws. And to top it, we have the ad films doing the reverse stereotyping of older people. If stereotyping leaves the subject angry and upset, the reverse leaves them frustrated and unhappy. But more about that in another post.
And while we are at it, let us not keep reminding them that they have become old and dependent. By all means let them feel cherished and cared for, but also let them be active in their spheres at home and socially. But it would be good to remember that it is just as bad to load everything on them as to make them feel useless. So whether or not you live with them, arrive at a balance, and when required, be firm – and this goes for both the generations while dealing with the other.
So what do you say to some change in perceptions and mindsets?
….more in the next post. I have honestly no idea what it is going to be about, so please come back and find out!
Read the first part of this series — The problems of a greying India.
(Homepage image courtesy: www.colefordcarers.co.uk)