What are her choices, they ask, other than to stay with her children, or brother, or nephew? Who else will take care of her?
You hear this being said when an elderly woman is suddenly single, or after an elderly single woman has had surgery or suffers from ill health. Being single, old, and a woman is to be at the bottom of the pile; it is an unmentionable class—caste. I give you the stories of Prema, Shubha, Lakshmi, and Lalitha, who represent a growing number of Indian single elderly women, who have found the courage to examine their choices and make decisions for themselves.
When Prema lost her husband after sixty years of married life, she was a healthy seventy-five, well provisioned with her husband’s United Nations pension. They had continued to live in the United States and moved to a university town in the east after his retirement. They had two sons, one settled in Mumbai and the other in Washington.
A few months after her husband’s funeral, Prema requested her boys to come and visit her. Sitting in the family room, after lunch, she told her sons that she would like to move to Hyderabad; her siblings and their families were living there and she would have company.
Her sons were aghast. “Amma you cannot live alone, you will fall sick. Who will take care of you? Divide your time between us, please,” was the immediate reaction.
Resolute in her decision, Prema wrote to her brothers and sisters who had many misgivings. Who would take the responsibility of Prema?
Nevertheless, they accommodated Prema and started house hunting for a spacious flat with power back up and security, and in close proximity to their own homes. Prema was determined to live on her own.
Married at fifteen, she had devoted her life to the care of her husband and their home, allowing him to manage their lives, investments and, as is somewhat typical, to make all the decisions. Over time, Prema had learnt to converse fluently in English and later Thai and French as a result of their postings. Now, after living for over half a century abroad, could she live on her own in India?
It is three years since Prema moved to Hyderabad. Prema donated all her belongings to charity and arrived in Hyderabad with three suitcases. She lives in a one bedroom serviced apartment. It is expensive, but she uses her husband’s pension for her comfort instead of saving it for her children and their children. Her sons visit her. She travels to Mumbai and spends a few weeks there. She attends music concerts or an occasional film with her sisters. Her apartment is tastefully furnished and allows her free movement.
Many consider her pitiable, to live alone deprived of the comfort of her children. I see Prema as supremely wise. She used her intelligence and resources judiciously to maintain her freedom and dignity. Her relationship with her children and their families is affectionate, not needy, and since she is obviously happy, the sons have no guilt.
Shubha, living in New York, suddenly lost her husband to illness. After a brief struggle it was over. Everyone expected her to move to her son’s house in Virginia. Instead, Shubha moved to a condo in Philadelphia, and involved herself in health counseling, traveling by public transport since she sold her car. She moves around the health district putting in a full day’s work and stays up at night to catch up on new advances in her field.
Lakshmi moved from Coimbatore, where she and her husband had been living, to Bangalore where her son was based. She found an apartment a few floors below his, smaller but a place to call her own. She is now envied by her girl friends, some not as fortunate as she is and do not have the independence that she enjoys.
Shubha and Lakshmi’s families have seen the contentment and fulfillment of their new living conditions and have shaken off their worry for seemingly abandoning their elderly relatives.
There are unstated social taboos for single, elderly women in India. Aspersions are often cast on the children: “they are callous to let her live on her own.” It is assumed that the only redemption from a life of loneliness is to go live with one’s children, siblings, or relatives.
Lalitha was persuaded to apply for her green card so that she could live with her daughter in California. After four months, handicapped by lack of transport and freedom of movement, Lalitha returned to Chennai and surrendered her green card. “I can visit my daughter on a tourist visa,” she told the lady in the consulate office, “it’s simpler.”
Children, brothers, and male relatives of single, elderly women, believing they know best, take preposterous actions supposedly to protect them. Some rent out their single mother’s house and then send her to live in an old age home, while some box her into their lives, a recessed alcove with a suitcase beneath the bed—trapped in a strange no man’s land where her status oscillates between a refugee and a visitor.
Some suggest the practice of economies, and others get affronted when their elderly mother or mother-in-law requests an outing.
Much confusion arises when the husband does not name his wife as the inheritor, but rather as a beneficiary. An elderly aunt suffered a heart attack when her husband’s will was read out. He had left the house to his son and overnight she was a guest in her own home.
We can deceive ourselves that such a situation will never arise in our own families.
Instead of ridiculing their options under the guise of affection, it’s far better to respect their ideas, their choices and help them adjust to the life they desire. A single, elderly woman may be educated or otherwise, but she has likely spent her life managing homes and rearing kids, and she knows how to decide and what is good for her. Support her, and do not suppress her. Let her decide.
Suraksha Giri has published in several Indian publications, including The Times of India and Speaking Tree. She is the author of the book, It Happened Like This.