OLD AGE: GAINING WISDOM AND LOSING INDEPENDENCE

Old age is a realization that Nature has bestowed a person with a long life. Yet, the issues surrounding old age are hardly ever easy to deal with, for both the people and their family, friends, and caregivers. The difficulties are not always due to old age itself, but the challenges of old age are often the result of the external factors affecting the lives of the seniors.
When I was a teenager, I read Plato’s Republic (Wordsworth Edition, published in 1997), in which it is said that “old age brings profound repose and freedom” from passions of youth. Old age, for those with “well-regulated minds and easy tempers” is itself “no intolerable burden” – suggests Cephalus, in the book. For many, the paradox of old age is such – people desire to live long, yet many do not look forward to old age out of fears of what those senior years might bring. This requires a close examination of how, as a society, we view old age, and what it truly is for many.
I was born and raised in Bangladesh. When I was young, my maternal grandparents, and sometimes my eldest aunt, were pretty much the only “baby-sitters” for me (I’d also be with my youngest aunt, who cooked for me and fed me with her own hands and took great care of me). My parents were attentive to my needs (I used to be a very sick child) and never trusted a hired help to take care of me, but wanted to make sure that I spent time with those who would not only take great care of me, but also help me grow spiritually. That has turned out to be true – no matter what I do and where I go, I feel that the my grandparents’ spirit (they are deceased) will always be there with me, guiding me in my life at every step.
As I’ve become a grown man, I have so many responsibilities and so much of details to pay attention to every single day. Yet, the details of my years spent in company of my grandparents are ones that I’ll never forget, while everything else may eventually fade away. The large mahogany dining table, the scent from my grandmother’s cooking, my grandfather’s afternoon medicines (multi-colored pills that he’d take after his meals), the built-in glass showcase in the wall with the finest china, the rooftop garden with flowers blooming – there’s more than I could write here.
At that age, it never occurred to me that everything comes to an end. Life seemed to have perpetual joy of being with grandparents, and learning from them, absorbing their values, and understanding traditions. The realization of loss first hit me when my grandfather passed away, and I figured that old age is a real thing. Now that I think about him, I feel like he was a man with the finest attributes of Uranus and Jupiter – an extremely kind-hearted person, yet authoritarian with no tolerance for injustice, and blessed with the ability to work hard and acquire great wealth. He was honest, cautious in his dealings, and a forgiving person with no sense of vengeance towards those who tried to cause him harm. He was like a giant tree, supplying the entire family with oxygen, and shade from bad weather. After his death, I understood that all things living expire. As the ancient pre-Socratic philospher Heraclitus said, “Everything is in a state of flux.”
My grandfather was a healthy man till the day he died – his death came suddenly. That threw me into a state of fear about who I might lose next. I feared, thinking that I might lose my grandmother, and it was just a matter of time. I was helpless, and put my faith in Nature to do what is right.
My grandmother was the perfect example of an elderly person who was very independent. While the loss of my grandfather had a tremendous impact on her (they got married while they were still teenagers), she continued to live alone confidently, burying her sorrow deep within her. As time went by, it became clear to the rest of the family that it wasn’t safe for her to be alone. My grandmother, living in one of the most significant properties in the entire area covering several neighborhoods, could become a target of criminal activity if she were alone.
To provide some background, we have an enormous family. While I do not have siblings myself, both my parents have siblings and cousins, and they have kids – making the immediate and extended family tree pretty big. Certain members of the family decided that it was in my grandmother’s best interest to moved overseas to New York to be taken care of by one of her children – a decision that could be subject to intense scrutiny and debate, as subsequent events would suggest. I recall my grandmother expressing that she was not happy with the decision. She wanted to be in her own house, in the city where she spent most of her life, in the city where her husband was buried. What this highlighted is something that many elderly individuals face – that is – others make decisions for them that they are forced to accept. Those decisions are not always the right ones, or as a matter of fact, not always just ones. This was probably the first step in her life – as an elderly individual – when she was told that moving overseas was in her best interest, whereas it was in fact a matter of other people’s convenience and not really my grandmother’s best interest.
It was not too long after her relocation that my grandmother became a victim of physical trauma, which (as I was told with no way to verify) was due to a fall. The circumstances surrounding her deteriorating physical health and emotional breakdown since her relocation would forever be shrouded by mysterious clouds. This to me, as I think about it now, is a clear case of asymetric information. My grandmother knew what she had been subject to. As a minor grandchild, I cared deeply about my grandmother, and yet had no means to fully learn what exactly had happened to her. I only knew what I had heard from family members. Those who had full access to the knowledge of her condition, in my opinion, didn’t prioritize the delivery of that information to me, or even to my mother. In the larger picture, I wasn’t that significant. To my grandmother, I was. I had always been the favorite grandchild in the family. My mother was on the same boat, craving to know more about what had happened to her mother, but that information wasn’t fully disclosed to her. I saw my mother suffer, as a result.
My grandmother, as I heard, ended up in a nursing home. I thought deeply about it. Here was a woman, strong, independent, and most importantly brave, and she was forced to leave her estate and wealth, forced to leave the country where she spent all her life, taken further away from her husband’s grave, compelled to give up her decades-old household, and thrown into dependency at a time when she could still retain independence. I recall my very reasonable grandmother saying that she understood the risks of being alone and would be happy to buy or rent an apartment and live there, staying in the same city where she stayed all her life, close to most of her children. She could afford all that pretty easily. But certain forces in the family dictated otherwise. With great sorrow, she surrendered her wishes.
Forces of Nature are greater than the power of humans. Her condition deteriorated, and people who had forced their decisions on my grandmother knew that they were wrong. She was eventually flown back to Bangladesh, where she was cared for by family. But by then, the damage had been done. Deep physical and emotional trauma had almost squeezed the life out of my grandmother. She eventually surrended to slumber, and one that she never came out of. The last few years of her life were spent in great care – she stayed at my aunt’s home, with access to the finest doctors and treatment, several aides at her service, and healthy food. She got what she had wanted – to be in Dhaka. My mother and I would visit her. But we could see the difference – she had lost her energy and vitality from the trauma, and no level of care could reverse the downward spiral.
Often, I experience a pensive mood. I think. As my life evolved, I studied philosophy and literature, then economics, slowly drifting into political science, and then policy analysis with emphasis on health care. These were not choices, but the voice of my inner self, guiding me. My life brought me to USA, which is one of the best things that happened to me (I now call the greatest country on Earth my home). Time went by, and both academically and professionally, I became intimately involved with understanding social and political issues that affect the elderly. Not just research seminars or classroom lectures, or bills in legislature or documentaries, but real people. I’ve spent a great part of my adult life so far understanding the lives of those nearing or at old age, talking to them, listening to their caregivers, learning from medical professionals about the needs of the senior community, and more.
It is clear to me – from all that I’ve studied, all that I’ve learnt, the stories that I’ve heard – that what had happened to my grandmother was outright wrong. Human beings crave to be in their own shelter, with their belongings and people they love, and they wish to feel secure. Similar to children, seniors too have tender hearts. Nearing the end of their life, they too wish to feel secure and retain their dignity and freedom, and not be subject to other people’s wishes. I believe that spiritually people live as long as they desire. If they lose the will to live, it’s only a matter of time before the body loses the ability to move on. I think my grandmother had lost her strength due to no fault of her own. She was self-sufficient, and was not a burden to anyone. Yet, she was subject to severely unwelcome, and avoidable, circumstances. I believe she wished to return to a state of perfect calmness, which she did when she died.
For those who live, it is a lesson. In the haste and hurry of life, people may often forget that what we do with the elderly is just the first step of being subject to the same when our time comes. It is important that we do what is right and what is just for the senior citizens who live around us. If one believes in Karma, then one must understand that our actions now will determine our future.
My grandparents had successful lives. With hard work, they rose to social prominence, touched many people’s lives through acts of kindness, gained the love and respect of those around them, and acquired enough resources during their lifetime that the leftovers are large enough to generate contention within family members, with people trying to get a larger piece of the pie. When I look at what I have inherited from my grandparents – I think they have left me with, among much else, their blessings. The time I spent with them made me who I am today. I have inherited from them the ability to see right vs. wrong, to be honest, to understand that we are here in this world and must do what we can to be on a just path, to be brave, to help those in need to the best of our abilities, and to always know that the same God created all of mankind.
Old age is a blessing, for it brings clarity. Sadly, as in the case of my grandmother, old age brought a severe blow to her independence. But it was not due to old age itself, but external factors. But life continues. When the material ends, the spirit lives. My goal is to keep my grandparents alive, by living a life following their values and principles.

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