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The looming, inevitable endgame

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan  

Senior homes advertise healthy living, intellectual pursuits … But there is a stage beyond these facilities

ne of my young friends gave me this book, Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, a surgeon in Boston and author of three award-winning works. Though it is set in the United States, issues of ageing and management of the elderly are largely the same everywhere. At 78, the book set me thinking in personal and general terms.

Dr. Gawande, of Indian origin, mentions in passing the grip and image his grandfather had once commanded in a joint family system even with failing health and faculties. As a patriarch of the family and commanding the traditional reverence that older people have in India, he could get all the attention.

Things are changing quickly in India. It is often heart-wrenching to watch the lives of the poor in destitute homes. Many of them have been disowned by their families. Dr. Gawande describes the nursing homes in the U.S., which, by and large, address the issue of the health and safety of the elderly

But often the emotional quotient becomes an issue, since the old still want to live on their own terms, irrespective of the condition of their health and their background.

In India, it would seem that there are no human rights of any kind for the elderly who are poor and destitute. The middle class presents an interesting study. I find that the joint family system is still in vogue in the less-affluent families with missing academic accomplishments among its members.

Families have become unitary and parents tend to live independently. Children are often abroad and the old couple can follow their own passion.

The problem arises when things slow down or get derailed by age-related problems, accidents and inability to manage day-to-day chores. There are old-age home advertisements galore, offering healthy community living, nutritious food, intellectual pursuits and health check-ups. But there is a stage beyond these homes. Often, a daughter in the family bears the burden. Thank God for creating the woman of the species!

I am a scientist and we are a privileged class. There is no retirement age as such. One can continue to be active in terms of hard-core research, teaching, writing books and giving lectures, serving on technical committees, mentoring budding scientists, and so on. But, setbacks come all of a sudden. In my own case, it was a dream-come-true that I could continue with research all along and quietly work to build a centre for malaria research brick by brick. My head turned when people underestimated my age by as much as a decade!

All this went on merrily till one fine day the entire dream for the centre collapsed like a pack of cards. People left and the infrastructure collapsed. The reasons are not important, but suddenly I did not even have a work bench to do my research. I can still do my research through collaborations elsewhere in these days of the Internet, Skype and e-mails.

But what happens to my ego-driven wish to leave a legacy in a place where I spent 50 years of my research career? It hurts and hurts deeply when the entire community which is supposed to revere and adore me does nothing to stop the collapse.

Intellectuals often overestimate their own relative importance, which, in reality, is of no consequence to society or even to colleagues. What will I do when I have to shut shop? I have not been to a shop or bank or movie-house for ages. I cannot imagine how I will get along without my wife, but she can do very well without me, despite the personal loss. We are trying to make all transactions online. Old people are difficult to handle and scientists can be worse even for the best of children. I have not been admitted to hospital as far as I can remember.

Dr. Gawande describes vividly the ageing process with unenviable consequences more to the near and dear ones rather than to the ageing person as such. Death itself does not scare me, it is the process!

There is only one way, if you are an Abdul Kalam! Anayasena maranam!

Professor Padmanaban is a former Director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore

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Printable version | Apr 8, 2020 4:26:25 PM |

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