I was 8 years old. One afternoon, during lunch break in school, my friends and I were huddled under a tree, ranting about the strict math teacher, when a group of older students passed by. There was a reverential hush. We looked after their disappearing backs with absolute adoration. They were our “seniors” and we were in total awe of them. Was it their seniority in age, wisdom, intelligence, size? Whatever the reason, seniors were a special breed.
This intense worship of seniors continued till I became a senior prefect and passed by a gaggle of adoring students, my head in the air, basking in the same adulation.
Decades later, I am in the Unites States. Here youth, not seniority, is worshipped. Seniors are disparagingly called old geezers. They are belittled, demeaned, scorned on TV shows and talk shows. Tasteless quips label retirement communities as God’s Waiting Room. Comedy routines revel in absurd negative images of the elderly. The young are uncomfortable with an aging population. Age is considered a liability.
Meanwhile, the media promote the young, ad nauseum. Ads flaunt beautiful young models. Seniors appear on some ads, but only to promote a laxative, anti-depressants, tranquilizers, or health insurance. The irony is that most seniors are getting onto treadmills, going hiking, and demanding Pilates classes.
Seniors should be compared with classic old wine, historical monuments, old-growth trees, or antique cars, objects that are valued for their age. They don’t shut down as they grow older. Sure, some may become pernickety, conservative, stubborn, and impatient. But more of them become ever more curious, more alert, observant, and eager to experience every nuance of life.
I worked in a senior housing facility as occupancy specialist for 15 years. There I came across harrowing stories of Indian-American seniors who are harassed, insulted, and humiliated by families who regard them as a terrible burden. I know of a parent who is separated from his wife of 50 years. He lives with his son in San Jose, whose wife refused to let her mother-in-law also live with them. So, the elderly woman is forced to live apart from her husband with her daughter in Los Angeles. However, the same families blithely take the Social Security payments or SSI or even food stamps that the seniors receive from the government in return for providing shelter to their parents. I have heard of men being indifferent to the injustices meted out to their parents by their wives, and of women harassed by her in-laws and husband for taking care of her parents. If you are in such a living situation, contact a social service worker, or apply for independent subsidized housing.
A housing project with 80 cottages, built on 20 acres in Orange County, for Indian-American seniors is being planned. I have also seen advertisements for another residential center in Artesia. Within the next few years, I foresee many more being established. If you wish to return to India, you can volunteers for education, development, and healthcare projects there.
Maybe you feel displaced in the order of things, embarrassed by the attitudes of the younger, or have become resigned to a passive, inert, retired life. Shake off your lethargy and depression. Join a reading club. Get a few friends together and read from your favorite books or pick up books from your library. Discuss issues in the newspapers, both American and Indian. Why confine your group to only Indian Americans? Invite senior neighbors from other communities. Become a member of a travel club. Try to go to that destination you have always dreamed about. Seniors can avail deep discounts for hotels, cars, bus, rail, and cruise packages. Volunteer at a hospital or a museum. Learn yoga, tai chi, piano, astronomy, or literature at an adult learning class in a community college. Most classes are free. Mentor a young student. Many students would welcome tutoring in math. Or you can teach conversation classes to adults who want to learn English or an Indian language. After contributing to society for decades, you cannot wither on the vine. Browse the Internet. A slew of websites will exhilarate you every day and keep you up to speed. The need for information is endless. According to Jupiter Media Metrix, those over age 55 constituted the fastest growing demographic age group using the Internet.
Life is still an adventure. My friend Prativad Narasimhan, 75, recently acted in a play, In Search of Vishnu, and is now rehearsing for another production. He can drive 200 miles and stage a Hari Katha rendering with verve and energy.
Your quality of life does not have to diminish. Re-invent yourself. There may be a few practical problems like transportation. Parents who smoothly juggle soccer, piano, kathak, hiphop, math tuition, and mridangam classes for your precious kids, take time out also for the seniors in your home. Your parents or in-laws deserve your attention, too. Seniors are not free babysitters to be confined to the home. Find activities that the whole family enjoys.
Interestingly, a national market research company discovered that 20 percent of older adults think “senior citizen” is an inappropriate term to describe them. In London, several walk tours offer reduced prices for seniors, who are called “super adults.” What a super idea!
Seniors, do not flinch at the word “senior.” Carry your Medicare card like a badge of honor. This is the phase when you can put a fresh spin on life and discover with delight that it can be challenging, vibrant, rewarding, and fun. With each passing day your worth increases.
Freelance writer and audio producer Prem Kishore lives in Los Angeles.