Geriatrics is a relatively new discipline of science, with the first serious gerontological studies being commissioned in the 1940s. The problems and challenges of ageing have never received as much importance, empathy, and research as today.
Japan has a rapidly declining populace, while the number of its older people is rising alarmingly. Facing a similar crisis, China is contemplating doing away with its decades old, strictly enforced ‘one child’ policy. While these and many European countries are in the throes of massive demographic problems, India is failing to quell its burgeoning population. Increased life expectancy is taking a toll on the financial, physical, and mental capabilities of the caretakers, be they children, old-age homes, or other institutions.
We look upon ageing as an enemy to be vanquished, subdued, dreaded, resented and grudged, but can’t stop time from extracting its sweet revenge by conferring us with grey hair, crow’s feet, wrinkles, fatty deposits, creaking bones, and fading eyesight. My mother, so beautiful in her youth that my friends would wait to catch a glimpse of her whenever she visited me in school, refuses to be photographed now. She says wistfully and frankly: “I don’t like what I see in my mirror anymore.”
Besides the physical challenges and infirmities, old age is accompanied by a slow decline in alertness and mental health. To attract our attention, the elderly tend to become nervous and hysterical, fussy and repetitive easily, like children once again, needing love, patience and our time.
A few days ago, hassled from a long day, I sat down with my mother-in-law and launched into a tirade unwittingly, complaining about the “old man” who was so slow getting on to the escalator in the supermarket. Later in the day, recalling an incomplete task suddenly, I cut short my conversation with her and hurried out of the room; and then at the lunch table, made a comment thoughtlessly about how an elderly relative’s exasperating habits were becoming the bane of her family. I continued in this vein until my motherin-law laid a frail hand gently on my shoulder, putting a stop to my insensitive rant, and told me smiling tremulously: “Beta, you too will become old one day.”
Utterly ashamed, I was served a much-needed reminder that we, flush with the swagger and vanity that is the brash hallmark of vigor and youth, in our single-minded and selfish quest for money, power, fun and freedom from responsibility, need to pause, consider, and show sensitivity and compassion to the old and infirm. Her gentle rebuke served to jolt me, rightfully, to the harsh if unpalatable truth that “old age will spare none”.
The writer is a Jalandhar-based freelancer