The dilemma: Caring for ageing parents

Yesterday a news item in SOM caught my eye: “Day care centre for elder citizens inaugurated in city.” As I read the news, it felt like I was reading an advertisement for children’s summer camp. There was yoga, indoor games, picnics etc. This service by the State government is indeed very thoughtful and what’s even better… it’s free. Now double income families, along with their children can drop off their parents at their respective day care centres and pick them up on their way back from work.

As I was appreciating this particular service with a friend, she wished that there were also some temporary boarding for elders so they can be “housed” while the family takes a vacation. She said, between her very aged mother and father-in-law they cannot take long out-of-town vacations. It may seem like a mean thing to say, but it’s a valid point. Caring for elders is difficult. From making sure they don’t slip and fall in the bathroom to making sure they take their medication, caring for an elder person in the house demands time and attention.

Services for elders have to improve in India because while we have the youngest population in the world, we also have the second highest population of old people in the world — this according to Global Age Watch Index. Also, it says, by 2020 old people will make up 12% of our population. And it is a matter of worry that a large number of our senior citizens have no official social security such as Provident Fund, Gratuity or Pension and every fourth senior citizen suffers from depression!

In Mysuru, a lot of old people live alone. In areas like Saraswathipuram every house has a child in a foreign country and every other house has an old couple living on their own. And every other real estate agent is circling that area for a bite of real estate. So it can be lonely and insecure. But by far I feel bad for parents who have to fend for themselves or have to ask for help from others.

Among my peers from college I am the only one who returned from the USA. And now I regularly extend assistance to a few friends’ parents. While I am happy to do so, it is terrible to see how awkward they feel while taking my help. Some of them are so overcome with guilt that they apologetically say, “My son is supposed to do this, but we are troubling you…sorry and thank you.” But then one can’t blame the children. They have to go make a life for themselves too…and Mysuru is not exactly a city brimming with opportunities.

Recently, at a gathering I was talking about how since I was helping a few friends parents’ I know quite a bit about prostate problems and types of hernia, when a debate about caring for parents ensued.

One of the guys said, “They took care of us, now it’s our turn.” This man said he had come back from USA to care for his parents. But then another guy added “You made your money so you came back to Mysuru; what about others who are not as fortunate as you? Also about ‘they took care of us…’ well they took a decision to make you, so it is their duty to care for you.” Both arguments are fine, but there is a “moral” responsibility to care for your parents. Which one can fulfil by making sure they get the care they need even if you live abroad. Also let’s not forget we all will get old one day…and karma is a just round the corner.

The truth is today the old have to be prepared to take care of themselves. The first step is to become financially sound. Today, for old people, financial independence is most important. With that you can have health and peace of mind…which makes for a stress-free retirement.

But to be financially healthy in old age, the planning has to begin early into one’s career. Unfortunately, this is on the back-burner in today’s “live today like it’s your last” attitude, not knowing that this saying does not apply to the “materialistic lifestyle” where buying things is considered “living your life.”

Also, in the present real-estate obsessed state-of-mind, the biggest danger for older parents is their own greedy kids and relatives, who fight over property or force parents to give up their property. That is why it is important to implement the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007. Only this can protect senior citizens’ interest.

Also while we pompously say, “in our culture we respect our elders,” as if other cultures don’t, many of us simply tolerate our elders by keeping them at home in a bad environment because putting them in an old age home is taboo. This too has to stop. And it will, as big brand builders are coming up with retirement communities with all facilities for the aged like in other developed nations.

There is no shame in putting your parents in an old age home. In fact, your parents may be happier as they will make new friends, develop new hobbies and regain their sense of independence. Activity and a sense of purpose can keep one going like Kerala’s 93-year-old V. S. Achuthanandan and Tamil Nadu’s 91-year-old M. Karunanidhi, both are vying to be CMs of their State.

Of course, apart from the usual activities at these retirement homes, the seniors could have some other “FUN” too like in Florida, USA. It seems the retirement communities and nursing homes in the this State, which is nicknamed “God’s waiting room,” as most retired Americans live here, has recorded the highest case of Sexually Transmitted Diseases! Oh! Speak of going out with a Bang! A truly “Happy Ending,” so to say.

For now in India, no matter the debate as to who should take care of our ageing parents? The bottom-line is, someone has to. So, either the children can pay for a good care-taker or check them into a good nursing facility… or make sure you have good friends who will help you care for your parents.

PS: An old wife told her husband, Honey my bosom has gone, my stomach is no more trim and my butt is not perky anymore but at least say something nice about my legs. The husband replied, darling blue goes with everything !

*He was talking about her varicose veins.

e-mail: vikram@starofmysore.com