I think the best way to start an article about old age is by defining what old age is. Is it the retirement age on your employment contract? Well, the state level and central level jobs have different ones!. And the private sector in India has its own age limits. Outside India, some countries like the US, don’t even have one! So may not be the best way after all… Is it the age when society gives you the title of “senior citizen” and all the benefits that come with it? (reserved seats, discounts on tickets, higher deposit interest rates) Or is it defined by when you stop feeling physically fit?
But then some may say it’s all in the mind? Oh, so then should it be when you are mind gets unfit or inactive…?? I let the point’s not debated what is old age, but it’s a mix of the above and I bet you know when you are getting old! And yes, it’s somewhere in the middle of when you retire from full-time employment (by 60 or 65 if controlled by rules or when you feel physically or mentally less fit if it’s a self-decision (maybe 65-70) but definitely and hopefully BEFORE society already decides it for you—which is 75 onwards!. So now that we have decided what is old age (somewhere between 60-75) let’s move on to the crucial point of the article.
Now that you know what “old age” is, let’s focus on what are the most important things to take care of before you get there so you are well prepared and can enjoy a happy and comfortable old age. I have crystallized it down to six things that I think are the most important. And guess what, it’s not just the usual suspects that you would expect — money and good physical health — but also includes more important and softer issues like mental health and peace of mind, old friends, and immersive hobbies. But before I get into these areas, I wanted to make something clear.
Companionship and the empty nester syndrome
While this is a bigger issue if you are alone and have lost your spouse or partner but equally important even if you are both around for each other as we all still need more social companionship.
- Flights of fancy – It is a universal truth that in most cases, as we grow old we will rarely have our children living with us. I call it the “small city syndrome”. We all dream big for our children and want them to fly. This “flight” usually takes them away from home. Either a bigger city in your country or mostly even overseas. But you also dream of them being with you in your old age. Well, we can’t have both, can we?
- Can you choose your dreams? As I mentioned above, you can’t have both. Want success for your child and company for yourself! So should we be choosing one over the other? Well, not really. The one way to solve this is maybe to not live in too small a city in the first place and secondly to inculcate a sense in your children that success in life does not have to mean big city life. This can help to a point, but how much ever you may try, if they have stars in their eyes and want to pursue their dream, there is little you can do about it. In fact, you should not. Because there can be situations where you intervene or shape their choices and if their life does not pan out as they planned, they will blame you forever. I am sure you don’t want that!
- Following their footsteps – Should you then follow your children if they can’t live with you? Some parents do that. But it is not sustainable and can only be done till parents are also fit and really active. In most cases, if you are going overseas to be with your children and most often, both of them work, you are left to not only take care of the kids but also do another house/kitchen work as domestic help is not common in most countries outside India. And there are various other reasons living with your children is not sustainable. Personal space, privacy, getting into each other’s hair, etc. On the flip side hence, even if your children are in the same city, it is better to stay close by and still maintain your independence financially, mentally, and in terms of lifestyle. It is positive for long-term relationships and for your own peace of mind.
- Be prepared – Can you prepare for this beforehand? Have more children maybe or more male children did you say? Well, even if we could choose the gender and feel sons are crucial to progress the clan and take care of parents in old age, be aware that even though daughters leave you after marriage they may be more caring when you really need help.
- Old age homes — we spoke about the complex nature of staying with your children and that it is not sustainable. We also spoke to companionship and boredom in old age. A suitable solution for both these needs maybe an old age home. There is a stigma attached to it but I have known people who have adopted that path and are thrilled. Something that can also be kept in mind and mentally prepared for early on. I believe more of these homes should be built so they become more accessible and commonplace and more social advertising should be done to build awareness. Initially, children who allow their parents to live in such a place will face a stigma and their values and upbringing can be questioned but it will eventually become more accepted and mainstream. It should. So now with this introduction out of the way let’s jump into the five “tricks” as I call them….
1) Physical health is the building block
Clearly, you don’t get good old age health overnight. Work towards it from an early age itself. In fact, maybe from your 40s itself. There are three key elements to good health. A good diet (both quantity and quality), regular physical exercise (walks, yoga), and some meditation and relaxing exercises (pranayam etc). Once you have adopted you still need to have the discipline of doing regular health check-ups once you cross 40. And last, you still can’t avoid falling ill. Hence a good health insurance plan is a must invest in early on when you are in your 30s or 40s. It will surprise you how many people even in their 70s and 80s don’t do regular screening health check-ups nor have any hospitalization cover. Good health is crucial to achieving another of the five tricks — which is pursuing hobbies. Would it not be a shame if you loved reading but did not take good care of your eyesight? Or loved going for long walks in the woods but just can’t because your knees don’t support it anymore. On a lighter vein though while we want to be fully fit, I am not sure loss of hearing is a blessing or curse. I think it’s a blessing, given when you are old, you end up hearing lots of comments from people outside your home, and sometimes even inside you find it quite crude and hurtful. So better to not have heard it!
2) Mental health and peace is more important than physical fitness and is usually ignored
Worrying about your children being settled — this is a very common issue. But what do we even mean by “settled” Yes you guessed it! It’s all about getting them married. For a girl child, we can still understand it but parents also want to see their boys married and settled. This issue manifests itself in various ways.
Let me give you a few examples here. To encourage a daughter to pursue her career dreams parents allow her to go abroad but when she becomes so career-minded and highly educated, her married life suffers and she separates from her spouse and becomes single again. She may be happy but is loads of “worry” for the parents. Or when a son is not ready for marriage but his parents get him married and he starts a family…remaining financially dependent on his parents forever.
The two examples are diametrically opposite but end in the same “worry” for your children. In old age, you don’t want such worries to hound you. You want to be at peace with yourself on such matters. One thing is clear, marrying a child just to “settle” him is like swapping short term peace for long-term pain. But the answers may not be so clear always. Like we saw in the first example. So as you can sense there is no one answer. But being sensitive to these outcomes will help you make a more informed decision or worst case help you be better prepared. Let’s take this discussion a little further. With two more examples — two daughters who were both postgraduates. But did not focus on their career and could not stick to a job for long.
Age kept slipping away, and they found it difficult to even get a suitable boy. In one case the parents were not very well off and died before they could get her married. She has been at the mercy of friends and family for her support. The other daughter got magnificent offers but declined them. She comes from a well-to-do family and parents can support but where is the peace of mind. These two stories have a common point. Which we all try to brush under the carpet and don’t face it. Maybe if our child is struggling with some issues, he or she may need therapy or psychiatric help. Maybe that would have made things different for these two daughters and of course for their parents.
3) Put your financial “house” in order
After health comes financial security. Whether you have inherited some wealth or have saved up yourself, make sure you have enough to go by and don’t become dependent on your children financially. Not that our kids will not want to take care of us but sometimes they may not be financially well off to do so. Even if they could support you, it is always better to be self-reliant. You can live a life of dignity and with your head held high. And this needs a lot of planning as you don’t make a nest egg overnight. Hence, this means that sometimes you may have to be a little selfish and save for yourself during your high earning years rather than get emotional and spend everything on your children. It may sound harsh, but it is true, and don’t be surprised if your kids one day turn and tell you that themselves! “Who told you to overspend and not save anything?” Two more points I would like to make here.
- A place you can call home — all of us dream of having a large bungalow and often to achieve that either we delay the home purchase decision for too long till we can afford that size and end up overspending on a large property during our prime earning years. But as you grow old it gets difficult to maintain such an extensive property and you rather than scaling down, end up selling it. And many times, parents will find it too late in the day to buy a new property with it and will just divide the proceeds amongst their children. This is a no-no.
You must hence make sure you own a small place as early as you can afford it to live in which you can maintain and sustain through your lifetime. So you never have to live on rent in your golden years or depend on children or relatives. This may sound like a rare thing but it will surprise you how common a mistake this is too. While we all trust our children and the values we have instilled in them to do the right thing by their parents, it’s about the peace of mind that you have your own lifelong place to live. And you rather be like the old lady that hid this large black box locked up under her bed and received great love and care from her family which only found stones in it after she passed away!
- Hold on to your savings — Similarly, no need to get emotional and start distributing your savings among your children (financial, jewelry, etc) while you are still around. Be clear. Passing on wealth to the next generation must happen AFTER you are gone and via your will. Not while you are still around. Enjoy your savings, wealth, and property as long as you live.
4) That’s what friends are for!
So we have spoken about saving money for our old age and rainy days. But along with that what else does one need? We need something for our “emotional health” too. For sure in our hard day’s relatives are substantial support but we need to maintain good relationships with them too, to expect even their help and support. Some have a god-given gift and ability to connect with everyone and maintain relationships but others may need to put more effort and time into doing so. Sometimes however there are certain things you don’t even share with your relatives but you share all your deepest feelings with friends.
As the saying goes, you don’t choose your parents or siblings but you choose your friends. And I am a big believer in that. And I have also been very lucky in this aspect. Because it is even more difficult to maintain relationships with friends. As one moves from one city to the other, one school/college to another and even as we change our jobs, we meet and make new friends. So keeping in touch with several close friends from different places is difficult. But it is important. Also, of all the friends you make, your childhood friends are the strongest and those always remain with you.
But such long-lasting closeness does not happen on its own. One has to invest in it, time and energy and attempt to stay in touch and reach out to them regularly. I had moved to a new school in 1954 when I was barely in my early teens and I am so proud of the fact that the friends I made in that school I am still in touch with them on a very regular basis even after 66 years!
Yes, almost seven decades…what started as school friendship, sharing books, notes, visiting each other’s homes turned into more of a family feeling. We were 6-7 of us and several of us are not even in India or our home town but still very much in touch. So it was with great pleasure that I returned to my hometown of Hyderabad after being out for 36 years. And I took full advantage of being back by meeting my friends more often and being even more involved in their lives.
Whenever they visit India, we all meet and have meals together. There is this one friend who just does not want to leave her house. So we marched to hers! Some of them don’t have cars, so we pick them up when we plan any outings. My last job was in a school in Ahmedabad where I worked for 22 years — again even those friends are all in touch.I have so many stories, that I can go on and on, and as my son says, I should probably write a book on this!
Close friends can really be a rock of support and help when you need them. Whether it is confiding in each other (which you often can’t do even with relatives) personal health problems, during times of loss, persuading and ensuring good and timely medical care is done (even physically taking each other for check-ups, etc.) As well as financial help if needed or using them just as a punching bag as they are the only ones who won’t judge you and accept you for what you are — friends are there and should be there for all such ups and downs in life. This further dawned upon me when recently I lost my husband and all my friends from Hyderabad and Ahmedabad not only called me to give condolences but made it a point to keep calling me every few days or weeks to help me cope with this phase. Cannot express how valuable that has been in comforting me… and the satisfaction I have got in being there for my friends and helping them where I could…this comfort and satisfaction is priceless….
5) Keeping yourself busy with hobbies
Another important problem of old age is boredom and loneliness. Especially since we live in nuclear families nowadays. This becomes even more problematic when one spouse passes away and you are by yourself. So it is really important to keep yourself busy. This is where multiple hobbies and satisfying pursuits come to your help. I have been an avid reader but also have inculcated hobbies like knitting, embroidery. It not only keeps you mentally sharp (avoids dementia, parkinsons, etc) but also lifts your spirits as you create something beautiful.
As a person in the education field for 50 years I have observed that the biggest failure of education has been to not have taught how to enjoy your leisure. 30-40 years ago when there was no Television even, young boys spent their free time hanging out at various corners of a city. That is changing now. Parents are sending their children to learn some activity like sports or a musical instrument, singing or even dancing. So this is a positive but often as we grow up we don’t pursue these hobbies with any seriousness and when you retire from active work, you felt this vacuum. This is very important. To pursue such interests which make you feel satisfied and fulfilled and keep you busy. Because we all have to accept that no one will have time to give you company all day long. Keep yourself occupied. The other important part is that in old age, of course, you cannot pursue heavy-duty hobbies like dancing or sports, etc. It has to be an appropriate activity that you can carry out at an older age. Reading, writing, stitching/knitting, gardening, etc could be good options.
If you are emotionally weak, you will become dependent on your children with whom you are staying or even with other friends and family with whom you are close. Hence by keeping physically and mentally fit we can be strong. This strength will allow you to live your life on your terms and live by yourself (even if you are single) and your children will also feel confident and comfortable to let you be independent and won’t feel the need to overprotect you.
Author Bio: Guest Post by Shanta Sahgal, 81years old- the “wise”-crack grandma — sharing her wisdom and wisecracks! She is a retired schoolteacher of Hindi and Botany. She is also a master’s in Sociology. She has spent her entire teaching career in various convent schools in Hyderabad, Mumbai, Bhopal, and Ahmedabad. She currently lives in Hyderabad and spends her free time writing, reading, and pursuing her hobbies of knitting, embroidery, and gardening.
Copyright: © Ruchi Verma
Disclaimer – This article is an advisory piece. Before you manipulate your diet habit kindly consult a medical practitioner or nutritionist.
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