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autumn of life

In the autumn of life

Said the little boy, “Sometimes I drop my spoon.”
Said the old man, “I do that too.”
The little boy whispered, “I wet my pants.”
“I do that too,” laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, “I often cry.”
The old man nodded, “So do I.”
“But worst of all,” said the boy, “it seems
Grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.”
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.

I know what you mean,” said the little old man. 

– By Shel Silverstein, American poet

As an individual reaches the twilight of their life, time slows down. The retirement party is over. The guests have left. And suddenly, they feel like there is nowhere to go or nothing to do anymore. Days and weeks stretch endlessly ahead of them, as they feel a devastating lack of purpose. Their health deteriorates, so does their energy. And once the children have left the nest, the elderly are often left alone to grapple with a series of physical and psychological health issues.

They say the golden years of one’s life begin after retirement. But for many, all it brings is a crippling sense of loneliness. Soulveda delves into the psychology of the elderly during this testing period and explores ways in which they can regain control over their life.

According to an American study, it is common for old people to feel lonely and depressed. Irrespective of whether or not they are living by themselves, senior citizens are known to experience varying levels of despair and helplessness. Explains Dr Soumya Hegde, a consultant geriatric psychologist, “This sense of loneliness sets in quite early and it happens at multiple levels. It starts with one’s children leaving home for studies or work, then comes one’s retirement. Later, it may worsen with the passing of one’s spouse, peers or friends.”

“Socialising doesn’t come so easily to many senior citizens who tend to be set in their ways. While they may long for company when alone, they may not always enjoy themselves when they are in a gathering.”

Tragic as some of these events may be, they are still a part of life. Being unprepared for these events and other changes that come with old age could make an individual vulnerable to psychological consequences, adds Dr Hegde. This is true in the case of Lalitha, an octogenarian who lives with her son’s family in Bangalore. Until about a decade ago, she had spent her whole life taking care of her ailing husband. Following his demise, however, she withdrew to her room and drastically cut down her interaction with the outside world. Says Divya, Lalitha’s granddaughter, “According to my father, she never learnt how to make friends. My grandfather was everything to her, and since his passing, she has been feeling lonelier than ever. And yet, an occasional mealtime conversation with her granddaughters is the extent of her social life.”

Socialising doesn’t come so easily to many senior citizens who tend to be set in their ways. While they may long for company when alone, they may not always enjoy themselves when they are in a gathering. Pragati’s grandparents, who are both in their 80s, feel that way every time they come to visit their children and grandchildren. Speaking of their conflicting needs, Pragati says, “They’re lonely when they are by themselves in Mumbai, but when they come to visit us and we plan something that disturbs their routine, they feel inconvenienced. Similarly, they complain that we don’t talk to them enough. But when we call them every day, they say they have nothing to talk about.”

“While the elderly make the effort to take charge of their lives, it might be really helpful if their children offered them some support and affection.”

A change in attitude might help remedy the situation. According to research conducted at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, developing hobbies and keeping oneself active physically can help lift one’s mood. Furthermore, the friendships one makes while engaging in activities of interest might be more fulfilling. Dr Hegde speaks of one of her favourite clients, an 85-year-old woman who spends her days baking, knitting and making pickles. “She lives in an old age home by choice, even though her children live in the same city, because she knows she’d be lonely if she shared a home with one of them. At the facility, she has made many friends and has built an engaging life around them and her hobbies. Sometimes, she take two buses to travel across the city to come and see me,” says Dr Hegde.

It is indeed amazing, the energy and zest with which some senior citizens lead their lives. Like Lalantika Polamada, a septuagenarian who has developed her own line of vedic card games. After a long stint at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, she took voluntary retirement to keep her lonely husband company. A few years of visiting temples and relatives later, the couple found themselves with a lot of time on their hands. “That is when I decided to come up with games that I could play with my grandchildren. I conceptualised a few based on the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, and my husband helped me with the printing and packaging,” Lalantika says. The couple are now hoping to popularise the games.

While the elderly make the effort to take charge of their lives, it might be really helpful if their children offered them some support and affection. Suggests Dr Hegde, “Make plans to go out with them every weekend; or if you live far away, teach them to use technology so you can make Skype calls a habit. And more importantly, look out for signs of depression and get them help.” Sometimes even just talking to them for a few minutes every day might cheer them up, she adds.

The autumn of life is a great time to sit back, relax and enjoy the benefits of a lifetime of hard work. And yet, dark feelings of loneliness and resentment rob many senior citizens of the spring in their step. This can be overcome by developing a healthy attitude towards life. As French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir writes in The Coming of Age: “There is only one solution if old age is not to be an absurd parody of our former life, and that is to go on pursuing ends that give our existence a meaning.”

*Some names have been changed.

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