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Different Ways to Age

2 months ago / by Sweta Vikram

Unlike in the U.S., Indian society tells the elderly they should pity themselves

An elderly Indian woman with her grandchild
An elderly Indian woman with her grandchild. Shutterstock

My husband and I were at in upstate New York one weekend when we met a chef who is on dialysis. He had moved from California to upstate NY to slow down and work part-time so he could pay his medical bills and continue to do what he loved: feed farm-to-table meals to customers and tourists. The chef was upbeat, funny, and grateful for his life. This, despite being hooked to medical equipment. He thought of dialysis as a solution to his malfunctioning kidneys. It was not a limitation to his existing lifestyle. Aah, the mindset!

I recently returned after a month from India, during which I did an internship at an Ayurvedic hospital. I spent time with my dad, in-laws, and many other people in their vata stage of life. In the hospital, the older female patients (even visitors) exchanged WhatsApp numbers with other women, just to criticize their daughters-in-law. The classical Ayurvedic texts delineate three stages of life, each influenced by one of the three doshas: vata (menopause to old age), pitta (middle age, puberty until menopause), and kapha (childhood or youth). Though Ayurveda is from India and clearly tells us about our dharma for the different stages of life, most Indians don’t practice it. Of course, there are exceptions.

Aging isn’t easy for anyone. My father lives in a senior living facility, which means I spend a significant amount of time with old people and listen to their stories. Where we live and who we surround ourselves with impacts our mental transformation. A friend’s 90-year-old grandma in Florida still drives and chooses to live alone. She has fallen and hurt herself a few times but refuses to move in with her kids. Her freedom and independence are sacred to her.

On the face of it, the elderly in India seemed independent and comfortable. They have fabulous setups where someone cooks, cleans, drives, and cares for them. But when they start opening up, you become aware of a deep vulnerability. Several of them referred to the domestic help or driver as “our family” because their kids lived in a different apartment, city, or country. The need to be dependent is deeply rooted in Indian culture because that society doesn’t applaud independence.

If I were 10 years younger, I would have rolled my eyes at the stories of insecurities, lashing out at the younger generation, and made-up stories about feelings of neglect. It feels unfair as most of my GenX friends and family (including my husband, brother, sister-in-law, and me) make our aging parents our priority. I traveled to India three times in 2022. We address their financial needs and show up for their emotional outbursts. Most of my desi friends have made sacrifices so that their parents can be comfortable. That’s why I don’t get why a large majority of the Indian elderly feel abandoned by their children. This applies to even those who live with their progeny and grandkids. My American friends see their parents a few times a year despite living in the same city.

It seems that the Indian society has ingrained in the elderly with the feeling that they should pity themselves and be unhealthily attached to their families. It’s reiterated that with age, they should relinquish all their desires. They should practice detachment and feel less than what they did in their youthful days. Most of them don’t have spiritual practices (doing pranayama while watching religious arguments on TV isn’t yoga and neither is laughter yoga with 10 chatty people in a park), so they don’t know how to transition to old age with grace. Instead of appreciating the phase where they don’t need to take care of anyone and have the option to enjoy retirement, they pretend to be over life while being extremely attached to it.

I am empathetic about the physical, emotional, and mental transformations brought about by aging. What I don’t understand is why, for most desi parents, expectations and disappointments take center focus, instead of celebrations and gratitude. They refuse to get help for mental health challenges. Aging can bring physical discomfort, and it’s not easy to accept that the body no longer functions the way it used to. They will seek advice from any graduate of WhatsApp University but not communicate with the next of kin what’s bothering them.

I am fortunate that both my dad and in-laws love their independence and appreciate their kids. The vast majority constantly compare what their kids do for them, compared to what other people’s kids do for theirs. It is an obsession and focal point of conversation. My dad told me that someone at his hospital asked why no one accompanied him to his medical appointments. Why wouldn’t his kids show up for every doctor’s visit? The lack of boundaries and verbal diarrhea can be damaging to anyone, let alone someone older and vulnerable.

In the U.S., the attitude is that you live your life and appreciate what you have until you are dead. Kids are on their own, and you shouldn’t spend your life missing them or feeling unwanted. The reality of life and lack of support structure makes you more independent. We know a 70-year-old who works in his own backyard to keep himself positively busy.

The Indian elderly have a mindset focusing on a scarcity of love. They listen way too much to what others say, rarely develop hobbies, and tell themselves unhelpful stories. This group has a uni-dimensional understanding of love, which makes old age even lonelier. I wish we would stop pitying the Indian elderly as “bechaara” and start teaching them to celebrate the one life they have.

It matters not how long we live but how.” ~ Philip James Bailey