I often wonder at the wisdom of uprooting a very old tree whose branches have given shade to many lives, whose roots have sunk deep and proliferated in many directions, making a declaration of permanence. You hope it will have a new lease of life if you transplant it elsewhere in “pleasant surroundings”!
Well, here is a true story and one that has been repeatedly enacted many times over. A very dear bachelor friend so much a part of our lives, spent all his adult life working towards the cause of the mentally challenged, and assisting many other social organisations and NGOs. With a special interest in education, he was correspondent of schools at different times, and shaped the lives of children, and to many of us he was a role model. He established an institution, designing many gadgets to make it possible for the mentally challenged to work there, and earn a living for themselves. Today it stands in silent testimony of one man’s efforts to bring sunshine into the families of those handicapped people. His services are too many to be listed here.
With advancing years, and when an aging body could not keep pace with his young agile mind, he decided to close home and move to a retired people’s home. He meticulously planned the move, donating most of his few worldly possessions to charity, and even telling us all he would pull the curtain down rather than be a burden to others. Knowing his penchant for independence, despite his physical weakness, a remarkable young couple whom he was very close to over 50 years, decided to “adopt” him after a lifetime stay in Madras, then Chennai!
We used to get mail from him practically every other day, describing his life in the new surroundings in a salubrious clime with stretches of bucolic green, interspersed with beautiful blossoms, to inspire him to heights of creativity in his writings and poetry. But I could read between the lines a sadness that he had left familiar surroundings, though not a word of complaint or regret was uttered. The very people who took him in had apparently advised him against the move. But as we grow older, an obstinacy takes hold, and once the mind is made up it is hard to reverse the decision.
All I can say is that four and a half months in idlyllic surroundings taught this old person what family life was all about, and he experienced love, concern and caring on a day to day basis. He had his music, photography, his writing, his forthcoming book on education and his memoirs which will never see the light of day…then what happened? Fluctuating blood pressure, two or three falls, and rushing to a renowned hospital some two hours away. Ten days of coma and he was gone. No one listened to his fervent plea in his living will that he was not to be kept alive by tubes and life support. When push comes to shove, it is difficult to practise euthanasia or convince the attendant doctors.
As one ages, it is only familiar objects, home of many years, faithful servants, and friends who provide security, and you do feel disoriented moving, even though you have a room all your own, resembling the previous one, surrounded by most of the objects that are familiar to you.
On our last visit to Australia, we visited Retired Peoples’ Homes and talked to the management who informed us that they also ran what they called “assisted living” where you remain in your home and a team comes over to assist you to live your life according to your needs of course at a charge. And when you are too feeble you are taken to a Nursing Home where nursing staff and doctors keep you comfortable. This is possible in a developed country where the concept of independent aged is accepted, and with the life span increased, organisations spring up to make life easier for them.
India has a long way to go. We assume that our children will look after us. Most of them live outside India, and they lead independent lives and nuclear families exist in place of the joint family which is practically non-existent. Builders and developers, quick to capitalise on this enormous need for older people, advertise gated communities for retired people making it sound incredibly tempting. Unfortunately most of these homes are outside of big cities and it does call for a total move which might not augur well for all. The children are sometimes resentful of their parents wanting to move as some kind of stigma seems to be attached, and the guilt prevails rather than bowing to the practicality of the situation.
We need to organise a team to offer help to older people, both in terms of the physical as well as the psychological, on a voluntary basis initially, and I am determined to give it a try. We will need data bases for resources, we will need volunteers, who are active and not too old themselves. We will need connections to doctors and hospitals, and nursing staff. When and if this fructifies, we do need all the help we can, and have to remember it is for a very good cause. Some of the elderly have loving children to take care of them, and they are blessed, because it is more the exception than the rule!
There are so many programmes and organisations established for children, for they are our investment and our future. But do we disregard the old and the infirm when their productive days are over, blind to what they face? A question which each of us needs to find the answer.
If you have any ideas to share on this subject, please contact this writer at firstname.lastname@example.org