For this generation of the elderly, perhaps one of the biggest challenges is the drastic change in social structures. For generations, the norm especially in South Asian societies has been that a senior family member’s importance within the extended family structure was protected. Elders presided over all important familial and religious activities. They were consulted over key matters, and more often than not, their decisions prevailed. Suddenly though for many of today’s elders, the rug appears to have been pulled from under their feet. Just when it’s their turn to take over the reins, they realize that new social dynamics require for them to reinvent themselves to remain relevant. Many have been able to easily move with the flow, but there are just as many others who have been left bewildered.
The biggest shift today is the move towards a more individualistic society, which is predominantly centered on nuclear families. Said Ranjini, “It’s different with children of today. You cannot tell them what to do. I had a very strict mother-in-law and I was so scared to displease her. We had to ask for her approval on everything from daily meals to when I wanted to go out. She even decided on the names of my children.” She adds with a twinkle in her eye, “Of course I dare not insist on any such thing with my daughter-in-law. What to do?” Ranjini and her husband, who are in their seventies, refuse to live with their children. “They are very concerned and have often suggested that we live with them, but I know that this will be a disaster. Nowadays we have to adjust to the young one’s lifestyles, and I know I can’t do that. It’s better to have your own independence.”
For Suresh, it’s the lack of time the younger generation have that he finds difficult to deal with. “They are always rushing. Even when they are with you they are constantly thinking of things they need to do or are always checking their phones,” he laments. “Even my grandchildren have no time to sit and chat. It’s either classes or homework or practices. I feel sorry for the little ones. I wonder how they will turn out when they become adults.” Another area of discomfort for Suresh, as with many other elders, is grappling with technology. “When I ask my children about anything they say, ‘Google it’. Their main means of communication seems to be by sending me videos and pictures on WhatsApp and other such strange methods. What happened to having a nice chat over a cup of tea I think. On birthdays or special occasions I’m given a new gadget, which I graciously accept, but shudder at the thought of figuring out yet another new invention. Click once, click twice and the thing always ‘crashes’. Then my grandchildren come along – and apparently do the same thing in seconds that I spent half the day trying to do – the gadgets miraculously work beautifully.”
Some elders though are more philosophical about these changes and are happy to try to integrate in to modern society. Chaya, a grandmother, wants to check out the latest apps, has several WhatsApp groups and has caught up with long lost pals on Facebook. She even listens to her favorite songs on You Tube and proudly displays any new bargain she has found on the net. She says she doesn’t get it right every time, but her daughters help and a ‘sweet little boy’ next door drops in every now and then to sort things out.
Another segment, though not comfortable with modern gadgetry, still refuse to feel abandoned and instead see this phase of life as an opportunity to discover more about themselves or pursue their passions. Ranjit has thrown himself in to gardening and is happy to share his passion for home grown organic food with anyone who cares. Amila found joy in writing and hopes to publish a book of short stories for children. When I commented on how she has bloomed in her retirement, she retorted, “darling who told you that I retired?”
(The names of many in this article have been changed at their request.)