By Dr Jyots Bhattacharjee
Old age is inevitable for a person having a normal span of life. A person goes through several phases in life. Of all these phases childhood is the most innocent and happy, youth is romantic, enjoyable and carefree, while old age is the saddest part of one’s life. A little beautiful infant goes through various phases till he reaches old age, when he loses everything he cherished in life and becomes a decrepit, just a bone and a rag and a hank of hair. He becomes superfluous in his family, unwanted and unloved. The feebleness of his body agonizes him and he acutely feels that he has outlived his existence.
Only an old person realizes the despair, the frustrations of the old age. An active and energetic person suddenly becomes prey to old age and loses all his vitality—it is not so easy to accept with philosophic resigtion. That’s why we fear old age—lest we become a burden to somebody else. Old people live in a world of their own—lonely and unwanted—only thoughts of the past to bear them company. The younger generation has no patience with them—whose views they consider as outdated—which is resented by the old.
The trauma of the old, in fact, starts at the time of retirement—and it gets more acute with the successive years. They feel that they are elbowed out by the younger generation. The children of modem age do not consider it to be a sin to defy their parents. For children the parents have become a liability—a kind of embarrassment. When the children become teegers, the chasm between them and the parents becomes apparent. When the sons marry, the chasm widens. A time comes when there is no communication at all between the parents and the children.
In earlier times the birth of a son was a momentous event for the parents. It was a great occasion for celebration. Even now parents are overjoyed when a son is born—while the birth of a female baby throws the whole household into gloom. Perhaps it is the belief of the parents and society as a whole that only the sons look after the parents in their old age. But unfortutely that rarely happens.
The old people are a frustrated lot. In their time they struggled and sacrificed throughout life to give proper education and comfort to their children. But once they grow old, the children do not care for them. turally they feel neglected, unwanted and isolated—days stretch out before them like a desert. For them life becomes an unending stream of boredom. There is no joy, hope or laughter in their world. Age makes them decrepit and they become a burden to their own children, who rarely show any genuine concern for them.
There may be several factors, which are perhaps responsible for the unfortute and pathetic condition of the old. It can clearly be noticed that over the last few years various factors have been altering our social fabric, and the time-honoured attitudes towards the elderly people are slowly, but steadily and surely changing. The old people in the present society are regarded as redundant and irrelevant. One of the factors for this attitude is perhaps the breaking up of the joint families. Many people from villages have migrated to towns and cities in the hope of better living and prospects. But space is limited in towns and cities where extra persons cannot be accommodated. Then there is inflation, and the people are facing terrible economic hardship, due to which it is getting more than difficult to feed an extra mouth. It can also be noticed that individualism characterizes modem generation. So factors like urbanization, limited space, inflation and individualism may have combined to displace the old people from their pedestal.
The old people have realised to their dismay that they are not really wanted. Children just tolerate them with utmost reluctance—some even throw them out like waste products. Earlier age was synonymous with wisdom and values. The children could never doubt the superior wisdom of the parents, even if they did not have any education or university degrees. Indian societies have traditiolly respected the elderly people. Indians considered it to be a great virtue to look after the old. Nothing in the household was done without first getting approval from the patriarch, or the matriarch, or the elder brother. But now they are rarely consulted. The younger generation do not need their advice or approval. The adult children are not the least interested in the opinion of the parents.
In olden days the grandparents were the most venerated and cherished persons in a family. The grand children adored them; they were the founts of wisdom that could never do wrong. The grandparents told them enchanting stories and met the endless demands of the grandchildren. But now the Television and the comics have usurped their role. They were the peace-makers, bridging the gap between the parents and the children, smoothing the frayed tempers of the various members of the family. The grandma wiped away the tears with loving fingers and made mouth-watering sweets for the grand children. But now of course sweets of various shapes and sizes are available in the market and the grandma is no longer required to prepare various sweet dishes for the little children. The grandparents are not needed any more. In fact, the parents often have misgivings that the grandparents may spoil the children with too much affection and indulgence. Some parents even try to keep their children away from the grandparents. An invisible iron curtain seems to hang between the grandchildren and the grandparents. turally the grand parents feel unwanted, and neglected. They are the odd people out, not really loved by anyone.
In the present day society there is an emotiol and communication gap between the parents and the children and the grandparents and the grand children. They do not even speak the same language.
Some old people do rebel against the injustice in bitterness—but to no avail. Intense loneliness and ictivity make them depressed and frustrated. They seem to wait for the inevitable death along with the rest of the family. It is really a fact that sometimes the children heave a sigh of relief when the elderly parents die. Even when alive, some elderly people go through a kind of living death. There is nothing as agonizing as the feeling that they are a liability to their children—that they are a burden to the family.
It’s no use blaming anybody for the tragedy and the pathos that engulf the lives of the elderly people. In most middle class families both the husband and the wife go out to work—turally they don’t have the time to look after the parents. Usually a quick look in the room which is allotted to the parents, before going to the office is supposed to be enough. After coming back from office they have various household jobs to do, like cooking, washing, looking after the home-work of the children, besides socializing. Even if the lady does not go out to work, she has various activities to perform. The children too are engaged in diverse activities and nobody has time to spare for the old people. Those who can afford, engage servants to look after the old parents. turally they feel neglected, left out. Earlier everything in the household was done according to their wish. Every member of the family had to take their advice for doing something. They were feared and respected by the children. But now they find that the children do not care for them—they do not fear their wrath. They do not bother even to ask about the opinion of the parents. For them the parents are senile—just waiting to be dumped away. Children tolerate them as uvoidable nuisances—and the parents know it.
The old people are supposed to be demanding, inconsiderate and cantankerous. This accusation has some truth in it. They may have been uble to keep pace with time. But we have also to consider the other side of the picture. After ruling over the household for half a century or more, it is only tural that the parents can’t understand that their children have become adults, with ideas of their own. They find it hard to believe that their guidance is no longer necessary or welcome. As a consequence they become a constant irritant to the family.
The old people also should take note of the fact that they must not interfere with the adult children’s decisions, which they did when the present adult persons were young children. They should remember that their little children have become adults, capable of making their own decisions and they do not need advices or suggestions of their old parents. It is also very true that old habits die hard and parents cannot grasp the fact that their children have become adults, who can make their own decisions. They do not relish the interference of the parents in the magement of their affairs. I know that it is very difficult for the parents to stand by and watch children doing certain things which they do not approve. Yet they have to accept the fact that their advice or suggestions may not be welcome. At the same time the children, who happen to be adults, should understand that it is for their own good that parents are giving advice. They may not accept them, but the good intention of the parents should not be misconstrued as interference. For maintaining peace at home and good relationship, both parents and children should have enough patience, tolerance and good will.
I do think that the old people should be given due consideration and of course we have to accept the changing situation. We can no longer expect sons to look after the old parents in the grand old manner. It’s not feasible any more. According to some people, some good “Old peoples’ Homes” may be an answer to this feeling of bitterness that is growing and giving a guilt-complex to both sides. Perhaps some old people will be happy there if these homes are comfortable and if proper care is taken. But many of the old people may not be happy there, thinking that they have been evicted from the homes they built themselves.
I believe that the most important thing is to instil some confidence into them—to make them realize that they are not burnt out ends of humanity—that in spite of old age they can do some useful work—that they are still needed by the family. Every old person needs love, understanding and consideration. They should be made to realize that their time is not over—they need not wait passively for the cruel death to come. They also need not depend on their children all the time. In fact, they can lead quite a useful and happy life till the time of their death, which is the inevitable end. Then they would not feel so useless and unwanted. The sons and daughters should try to understand the problems of the old parents. The parents want nothing from the children except love and understanding—and surely that’s not too much to expect. I really think that some thoughts certainly are needed to brighten the lives of the old people in their twilight days. A little bit of consideration and understanding will go a long way in making the last days of the old people happy and content. The children can do at least that much for them.
(The writer is a former Head, Department of Philosophy, Cotton College, Guwahati)