Age And Adaptation

Posted: April 25, 2012

I came across a rather curious letter recently, over at the IHM’s blog, from a young man who fears that his prospective wife will not love his parents as much as he does, that she will have an individualistic view of life, while he believes that the individual is not as important as the family unit. Without getting into my thoughts on his rather unrealistic wishes, one thing that struck me was the implicit assumption that older people cannot change – and the wish that they should not have to.

Is this true? I don’t recall where I read it, but I remember reading some research once that said human beings were at their most adaptable in their 20s or 30s, and adaptability began declining after this age. 

However, I also feel that how we view old age (both as young people viewing our elders and while growing old ourselves) is also a matter of culture. Why is it that we often see older people from Western countries travelling, eating out, having hobbies and interests, while older people in India are generally expected to act as caregivers for their grandchildren and rarely do stuff for themselves? Of course, it is also a question of how we define enjoyment – it is entirely possible that for many older people, being with their grandchildren is the most enjoyable thing to do.

Similarly, I feel that adaptation and degrees of adaptation could also vary widely – depending on learning, exposure, circumstances – and one’s personality. Even if adaptability goes downhill, one older person adapts to changing circumstances more easily than another. After all, how do parents of girls “adapt” to their children leaving home to get married while parents of boys feel that they have been dealt an injustice if their son moves out to set up his own household? Both face situations of adult children leaving home, but the girls’ parents adapt because they have long expected that this is what will – and indeed should, happen.

My grandmother, who grew up in a strictly caste-conscious era and has always regarded our caste as ‘superior’, remarked when she learnt of my decision to marry a man from a totally different caste, region, language, “How does it matter? Are they not human beings too?” At that time, she was already past 80. I don’t know if her views on caste have fundamentally changed or ever will, but certainly, they are not the same as what she held even 10 or 20 years ago. Among other things, inter-caste marriages and the opportunity to interact closely with people from other castes are a factor in making people realize how meaningless casteism is.

We do older people a disservice when we assume that they cannot change, do not want to change. People who are open to learning continue to learn, even if the rate slows down over time. Certainly, there are people set in their ways and convinced that they know it all – that theirs is the final word and they have nothing to learn. Interestingly, I have seen enough of such folks in my own generation too.

Pic credit: Marco Nedermeijer (Used under a Creative Commons license)

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  1. I used to think that I was very adaptible and would have no problem adjusting with my children when i move in with them at some point of time. i am not sure now. My daughter wants me to apply for a green card and spend a greater part of my time with them in USA. My heart sinks at the thought. I do not know if I would feel as bad if they were living in any corner of India. Caste or community is not a problem with me. In fact I have had more non Tamilian/non Brahmin friends all my life. There is something in my sub conscious that says visits are okay but hold on to your space as long as possible.

    I think I need to think. You have started a thought process………

    • You have rightly decided in your sub conscious that visits are ok but one should hold on to our space as long as possible.Every one needs some space in life and if we find difficult to adapt or adjust as one may call,it is better to maintain a sweet relationship by just visiting them once in a while and be wanted and desired lifelong rather than being rejected and discarded like curry leaves in the long run.

  2. When you mention about the differences with the western world where we say people travelling and enjoying at any age as opposed to Indian grandparents who end up only babysitting, I can’t help but also point out another striking difference. People in the the west hold on to their self sufficiency and independence as long as possible, they don’t like being helped with their own stuff as long as they can do it, in India, as people grow old they expect their children and daughter-in laws to do things for them even if they are physically very well fit enough to do them, it is as if they demand respect in the form of chores!

  3. Thanks all for your comments.

    @HG – I think adaptation actually comes easier when one has consciously made one’s choices – and hence resolved to adapt to them. So according to me, it is a good thing that you are thinking through whether or not you would like to be abroad for longer periods – and if/how you would adapt. When people make choices without thinking, I think there is more resentment later. Agree with what Meeta says too.

    @Gauri – yes, that is part of what I meant – how “independent” we perceive ourselves to be with growing age is also a cultural thing. However I do see more older people, including my parents, being quite independent and determined to do things by themselves as long as they can. I think some of the lack of confidence is also to do with a fast-changing world – technology for e.g. can be somewhat baffling for some of the elderly – esp if they haven’t really been using devices and now suddenly find everything complicated.

  4. Loved this post. I have seen my mother change – she is 71 and has changed her outlook on so many issues. My dad also was the same. My grand father too… I can think of so many people who have continued to grow as they aged.

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