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Who decides how older people should live their lives? Why are they expected to stick to drab and staid choices when they may now want to enjoy their freedom?
“I am Old, I can’t wear Red!” I have heard this line from innumerable men and women and to me, it sums up everything that is wrong with our attitude towards the elderly in our society.
An elderly person is expected to wear lighter shades, no or little makeup and minimal accessories. If the woman is a widow, then her wardrobe has to be even more drab. The attitude of forced sobriety extends to not only wardrobe choices but also to all other areas of life. There would, of course, be exceptions who don’t care two hoots about what people think.
If you have ever cared to notice, there is a subdued presence of the elderly at public gatherings, mostly confined to the seating area. Although their definition of fun may be different from mine, there may be some amongst them who would like to dance or do something more active. I suspect they don’t indulge themselves because of the fear of being ridiculed by others rather than a genuine dislike for dancing.
Patriarchy is deep seated here too because we have statements like ‘Boodhi Ghori, Lal Lagaam’ (Old Mare, Red Leash). This is perhaps the reason that in Bollywood, men in their 50s (Thank God for Botox!) are still playing college boys while their contemporary actresses are being cast in the role of mother or elder sister.
In anticipation of the afterlife, older people are expected to be increasingly God fearing, visit the temple more often and in general, detach themselves from worldly matters. So, after a certain age, people tend to spend excessive time on spiritual activities. While this may be a natural inclination for some individuals, for some it may also be a way of fitting in. I have noticed that there is a need to conform to the societal description of older people.
If a person either divorces or re-marries after a certain age, it is considered nothing less than sacrilege. How can he/she do this, at this age? The age becomes bigger than the individual, followed by mocking statements like, “At this age also, such a colourful personality!” In a country where it is still taboo for young men and women to date, dating after the age of 50 would perhaps need to be kept completely under wraps. The 2005 movie ‘Pyaar Main Twist’ starring Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia showed the story of an elderly couple who found love again after their respective spouse’s death and their own children’s opposition to this union. It was a very appropriate depiction of the society’s bias.
Most of my parents’ generation have worked hard to provide their children a good education and a better future. A large part of their life was spent taking care of not only their children’s needs but of the extended family too. As a child, I remember my parents rarely bought anything for themselves as there was never enough money. At this age, when they are free of their responsibilities and are financially secure, should they not spend on their unfulfilled wishes? Should they be concerned about what society would think?
One of my earliest memories is of my grandfather listening to a Bollywood number in the outer courtyard of our house. My aunt (his daughter) quickly came out of the house and said, “Abba, don’t listen to these songs at this age. What will people say?” Poor fellow was not even allowed to listen to a song because he was on the other side of 70. Perhaps, he was sick of being told how to conduct himself and he continued to listen to the song in rebellion.
I often see elderly couples from other parts of the world at tourist spots in India, doing hiking or other adventure activities. It is heartening to see that they are doing what they enjoy. Fortunately, their society has not laid down such stifling norms for them. On the contrary, one of my friends who keeps asking her parents to plan a trip during vacations has found little success. Despite liking the idea of travelling the world, there is something which keeps them back. Perhaps, it is this mindset that their life is nearly over. As long as we are alive and kicking, we need to keep doing things that give us happiness, irrespective of what age we are at.
This attitude of straitjacketing people into neat categories and then expecting them to behave in a pre-defined manner is a unique characteristic of our society. If you are old, you need to detach yourself from the world and just be spiritual. Despite our tall claims of being a culture that respects elders, an increasing number of elderly are being subjected to abuse in our homes, in both urban and rural setups. While abuse may be an extreme situation, we need to be mindful of the fact that the kind of behavior that has been outlined above is also discriminatory in nature.
In conclusion, I would just say that the elderly have spent a better part of their life working hard and providing for their family. Now, it is their time to relax, unwind and do whatever they would like to. The last thing they need is a boundary curtailing them.
I would love to quote Mark Twain here who said, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
Image source: flickr, for representational purposes only.