Aging India's dilemma in a nuclear society
Growing up in post-colonial Kolkata and as a student in a Catholic missionary school, we made the occasional trip to what we called "old-age homes" or retirement hostels for senior citizens. Those were heart-rending visits: old women and men miles away from their children, some of whom had left their aging parents for greener pastures in the U.K., Australia and other Commonwealth nations. Many of the senior citizens were Anglo-Indian or Caucasian (from India's British Raj days) whose children left after the country became independent. They never came back to take their aging parents, who longingly held on to bits and baubles of memories. I recall seeing many local (Indian) elderly parents as well, who didn't seem to have a colonial excuse.
As a young teenager, I was barely able to grasp this reality. These were no Florida-style retirement homes. The inmates led a simple life of doing very little, and seemed happy to have us over even for a few hours. We sang to them, prayed with them, and listened to stories of their children whom they seemed to long for. I told myself I would never see my parents in such a home; to the best of my knowledge none of my relatives ever stayed in a retirement home, so this was almost a foreign notion to me. I was young and was sure something would work out in future.
After all, my parents were too young to grow old.
Fifteen years later and thousands of miles away from our parents, we are still plagued by that one worry: what will happen to our aging parents?
India is aging and we are not ready for it. Our senior population is projected to quadruple by mid-century, double the likely U.S. figure. While fancy resort-style retirement homes are coming up -- many funded by the foreign-currency-earning Indian -- infrastructure and support systems for the aging are still in a nascent state. And the emotional disconnect can be severe. For a society where children were expected to care for their parents, the dynamics have changed too quickly for a planned response. The same generation that pushed their children toward successful and rewarding careers is coming to terms with the fact that economic and academic ambitions come at a price: that of distance. Being a society of intricately intertwined social fabric, the senior Indian world is playing out in more than one continent:
The senior Indian in India: A generation that worked hard to drive its children to pick up those juicy degrees and jobs -- both for the welfare of the next generation and in some cases for their own social standing -- are finding themselves in a new social set-up that many are not used to: children moving away to snap up lucrative offers and richer lifestyles in far-away cities. With more and more families going nuclear, the practice of living with our parents until marriage and then inviting them in to live with us in their twilight years, is quickly becoming a more stressful and less economically-viable option. Many aging parents are having to learn to be less dependent on their children. But learning new tricks at an advanced age doesn't come easy, for many reasons:
a) Our attitudes toward old age: an age at which we believe we must start preparing for the next world. It becomes almost a purposeless existence -- worse if the children and grandchildren are away. Agelessbonding discusses this problem beautifully in her post on senior India. She urges the retiring generation to develop their own interests and calls for more societal infrastructure to help the aging. Narrating the story of an aunt in a retirement community who needed a heart surgery and got one only after relatives helped out (her sons were abroad and couldn't make it) she writes:
I am not judging them as this is perhaps just illustrative of how relationships have become secondary to employment interests. I almost wrote family ‘responsibilities’ there instead of relationships but I am no longer sure of how much responsibility the children have toward their parents. It seems that , like in the west, we have also come to believe that parents bring their children into this world so they need to accept responsibility for them while children owe nothing to their parents and so filial responsibility is probably an outdated concept.
While I was with my aunt she said something that made me think: “the doctors tell me that I have got another lease of life, at least another 10 years with this operation. But tell me what do I want another ten years for?” Perhaps it is the pain that she was going through that made her say that; or perhaps she meant it because she really doesn’t think she needs another 10 years. And she is a person who is highly educated and has varied interests such as books, music and crosswords. It is not lack of interests but a sense of purposelessness that made her say this.
Maami (link via Agelessbonding) calls this attitude "ageism", our sense of helplessness at all stages of our lives because of our age:
Our attitudes to age at all times is beset with doubts and hence our surprise when we hear words of wisdom from the inexperienced mouth of the babes; else sprightliness from the elderly.
Pushing for change with Susan Boyle's example, Maami gives an example:
My 81-year old aunt lives alone in Chennai. She lives in comfort, thanks to the dollars her sons send her after she insisted that
traveling from the East Coast to the West Coast, from this son’s home to the other, was getting tiresome. “I wanted a life of my own”, she says with equanimity, devoid of the lament of a loser. “I am a motivating character in our little community teaching music”, she tells me proudly as she phones in to wish me on Tamil New Year’s day.
“I’ve just learned this new Jayadeva composition that I want to sing to you. Listen in”, so saying she breaks into a song that sounds serene, calming and powerful.
b) Lack of purpose: So many Indian parents are so focused on their children's lives that when the nest turns empty, their sense of purpose disappears. Suddenly, for many couples, the realization dawns that they have little or nothing in common with their spouses to base the rest of their lives on. Their only sense of purpose has left the building. And the savings kitty may have gone with them. Parents investing all their hard-earned money to further their children's careers hoping for better returns and leaving nothing for themselves can be killing, especially if the returns never come. Two valuable lessons I learned from watching my parents' generation: consolidate your relationship with your spouse so you can look forward to retiring, and save for the twilight years.
c) The son-daughter factor: Traditionally, the woman moved in with her husband's family (usually financially dependent) and also contributed to taking care of her husband's parents. Now, with more nuclear families, and with many women financially independent besides being their parents' only children, that equation is changing. If the woman wants to take care of her aging parents just as her husband wants to take care of his, how is this all going to work out? To get a taste of this worldview, check out this article about whether families living abroad should return (to India) to take care of their parents. The author addresses only the "son". What happens to the daughter's parents?
The situation gets a little more complicated if the woman is not working (so no extra money to spare) or if either of the spouses fails to develop or doesn't have a working relationship with the in-laws.
d) Generation gap: This is probably that single make-or-break factor. With children and grandchildren having widely different worldviews and lifestyles, parents who are unable or unwilling to adjust and let go may see their progeny grow apart and away, a problem many Indian parents now living with their children abroad have to face. Also morphing is the power structure where parents cannot necessarily assert their rights to decision-making in their children's families. This is more acute in case of parents with sons, who feel they have a stronger claim on them than they have on their daughters, which may lead to utter disappointment.
The NRI* parent: This Outlook magazine story about parents who moved to join their children abroad tells a sad story of confinement, dependence, alienation, helplessness and abuse, something that goes largely unreported [*NRI or Non-resident Indian is an umbrella term used to describe Indians or people of Indian-origin living abroad]:
[T]there are two segments—the '60s immigrants who came as students, worked and are now preparing to retire; and the '80s immigrants, who wrapped up careers in India and moved to America to be near their children and grandchildren. The second group, which traded established, often pampered, lives in India for proximity to their progeny, is more vulnerable to abuse, largely due to their dependence on their children.
Shamita Dasgupta of Manavi, a New Jersey-based women's rights organisation, recalls dealing with a woman who had once been a well-known Bollywood actress. Declining to divulge the identity, Shamita says her son and daughter-in-law ended up treating her like a maid.
Apart from dependency, problems also arise because of difference in expectations between the wage-earning young couple and their elderly parents.[...]The elderly may also find the lifestyles of their children and grandchildren unacceptable and thus get into conflict with both generations.
Phillygrrl's post on Sepia Mutiny talks about the "loneliness" she sees in the eyes of her grandparents who moved to the U.S. from Pakistan to live with their children. She wonders if it is time for South Asian nursing homes in the U.S., pointing to this New York Times story -- Invisible Immigrants, Old and Left With 'Nobody To Talk To' -- about aging immigrants in Fremont, CA, most of them of South Asian origin.
Parents of the Non-Resident Indian and the returning Indian: Parents aging alone in India is probably one of the most persuasive factors driving NRIs back home. And if they can't make it physically, their dollars make it back across the seven seas. Many or most of the mushrooming 'retirement resorts' are funded by concerned NRI children. Many such parents are forming formal and informal social groups to enjoy and cope with their retirement without their children (link via Sujatha Bagal's post on Desicritics.org). Some seniors of Indian-origin are even planning to move back to India for full or partial retirement after spending years abroad. A family friend recently bought an apartment in his hometown in India, so he and his wife can escape the chilly Philly winters. Another family friend who retired recently told me how, after living 40 successful years in the U.S., he still feels he doesn't quite fit in, but realizes, painfully, that he can no longer fit into modern Indian society either. The couple's only child -- like so many Americans -- is well on her way to leading a successful, fulfilling life.
If there's one good thing emerging from the "crisis", it is a social infrastructure to support senior citizens, something the country needs badly. But this infrastructure of fancy retirement communities is still out of reach and unaffordable for several Indians. Where do they go to celebrate their silver age?
Also, we are realizing that this is a two-way deal: parents have to start reorienting their priorities and expectations from their children. Raising your children to fulfill your dreams rather than theirs, and claiming a right to control their adult lives, may backfire someday. Children -- both men and women -- could help by being sensitive to their parents' needs and not just look at it as social duty best done away with. After all, they too will age.
Hopefully, we will find the middle path.