A large part of the resistance to ageing is perhaps precisely because it is so often spoken of as returning to infancy. Perhaps if old age were to be treated as a distinctive phase of life and not just a return to infancy and inability, even if real, the old would not give up so easily. Unfortunately, ageing comes with various ailments, which are the most destructive of the self-confidence of the genuinely elderly. Yet at this stage of life, the person’s self-confidence has to be shored up, perhaps more than any other stage, since the exit is so close.
The wish to be young again is, to some degree, understandable. As an octogenarian, one could live near one’s close or extended family with grandchildren or even great-grandchildren. The alternative is to live alone or possibly, as is now being spoken of more often, of living in an old people’s home. Old-age homes have existed in the western world for a while and have recently marked their presence in India. They are useful in as much as they take care of the aged and the incapacitated, provided they are run humanely. That is, of course, a relatively big ‘if’. Many are run in this manner and are thoughtful about ageing requirements. But some degenerate into doing the minimum and treat the aged as a continuous chore.
Of course, we old people are demanding. It is our right to be so. After all, we have lived a lifetime caring for family or friends and, ultimately, need to care for ourselves. It is not just training people to look after the aged that is required, although that is central, but perhaps, even more, the thoughtfulness of being sensitive to the requirements of the aged – both the known and the unexpected.
Ageing persons are difficult. We know that we are waiting in what a friend of mine calls the departure lounge. Yet we also harbour a lingering wish to stay and not depart. We are ageing, but we don’t want to age. These contradictory attitudes are difficult to reconcile, yet they need to be seen as an interface.
In Homes for the Elderly, one has to live partly alone, partly with others who are also living alone and whom one does not know. The ageing process can be one of getting to know them, especially in discovering how they cope. Above all, there are people of all ages, not exactly a family but somewhat analogous.
In monasteries and nunneries, there is no restriction on age. Novice monks and nuns can be quite young. Their presence might be fun and give one at least a marginal purpose in old age. Conversations with them on this, that and the other could provide some continuity. It becomes a symbolic family. One may well ask that if one is looking for a symbolic family, why not stay with the actual family? Ultimately, it is a matter of personal choice and individual situations, and in really old age, these should be conceded. Nevertheless, it requires an ideal society for these adjustments to be made without malice.
One has to remind oneself of the many creative people who have been active into their old age, into their nineties. M.F. Husain was still painting. Zohra Sehgal was as entertaining and witty as she ever was and climbed up two flights of stairs to her apartment once in two days, as she told me. Pandit Jasraj was still singing. None of them was desperate for immortality and took age literally in their stride.
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Let me end by arguing that all of us ageing need to be reminded by subtle, gentle boosters, perhaps even in a disguised form, that we still have much to participate in and contribute to. There is another much more forceful reason. Those ageing are a reminder to the rest that what needs to be done for the well-being of the human condition has to be done here and now.
Ageing teaches us to continue to nurture life with perhaps a little occasional thought for the future. The future evolves from the present.
Ageing brings up the centrality of urgency. Actions should not wait for another day – which other day may not come.
And above all, we still have the right to cherish whatever life is left to us, not as left-over life to kill, but as left-over life to live.
This excerpt is from Romila Thapar’s essay in ‘A Portrait of Ageing’, edited by Zarina Bhatta. Published by Destiny Media, permission to print by Zarina Bhatta.