Musings for a responsible society

Amidst the dark and grey shades increasingly engulfing, invading and piercing deeper and deeper, let me try to enjoy the little smiles, genuine greens, and the gentle breeze. Oh! Creator! If you don't exist, my vain!
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Ageing with Grace and Dignity: Thoughts triggered in the seminar by the Lundbeck Institute

Plato said: "He who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition, youth and age are equally a burden." Plato (427-346 B.C.)

When we were too young, we wanted to be older. We wanted to dress up like elders while we were in school.  But as we grow old, we try to dress up like young ones. Look at our own profiles in the social networking sites. We try to put the most ‘young looking’ photos as profile pictures! None of us want to become old. We try to Google things and strategies that can make us look younger than what we are. The world cosmetic industry is thriving with sales reaching about $170 billion a year. We see new beauty parlors and cosmetic clinics being opened every other day in our vicinity. Too many companies sell various types of hair colors: natural, herbal and what not! I asked a friend of mine who looked very young but for the grey hair, why he is not dying his hair. He said, ‘I want to die only once’!

“You look just the same!” This is the best complement one can shower on another when they meet each other after many years. I used to see my Grandma putting the cream from the milk all over her face every night before going to bed, even when she crossed 85. She never accepted the fact that she was hard of hearing and always said she was having a bad cold for the past two days and the ‘ears’ got blocked. Why to blame Grandma! I felt uneasy when my daughter displayed my age prominently on the birthday card pasted in the living room hall. I asked her, ‘why do you want to write the age there?’

For people who are getting old there are more worries than the unhappiness of being less handsome or pretty. They worry about their failing health, the neglect they experience and the powerlessness they feel.

Lundbeck Institute, India recently organized a seminar on the topic ‘Ageing with Grace, Dignity and Courage’ as part of its social initiatives. Lundbeck is a global pharmaceutical company committed to improving the quality of life of people suffering from brain diseases. Its products are targeted at diseases such as depression and anxiety, psychotic disorders, epilepsy and Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Mammen Mathew who leads its Team India, took the initiative to bring together three eminent experts to speak on three important topics under the broad area of ‘Empowerment: in spirit and mind’. 

According to the organizers, there are  two dominant views of ageing. First one focusses on the physical decline and the consequent dependency. The other one is about ‘successful ageing’ where physical and psycho-social activities play major role. The seminar projected an alternate view that sees ageing as a ‘spiritual journey’, that empowers to find meaning in one’s  life and, therefore, reason for continued life and hope.

Dr Thimmappa Hegde

Dr Thimmappa Hegde, the Director and Senior consultant Neuro Surgeon at Narayana Hrudayalaya (and former Professor at NIMHANS, Bangalore) had the following to say at the seminar attended by a large number of senior citizens:

In his talk titled ‘From Ageing to Growing’, he said that the brain is the greatest asset. Are you using the most of it?

The purpose of life should be a life of purpose. There is only one 'unrepayable' debt for every human being. That is the debt to the parents. But your achievements in life can bring happiness to them. He narrated the following incident in the life of Buddha:

When Buddha was eighty, he called the faithful Ananda to him and said that he wished to die in the city where he grew up.
Ananda was grief stricken. "O Buddha," he cried, please do not leave us! For so many years you have been our guide. What shall we do without you? Then he began to sob bitterly.
Buddha answered, "Do not cry, dear Ananda. I have always taught that death is a natural part of life. It is nothing to fear. You must understand that. And when I am gone, let my teachings be your guide. If you have understood them in your heart, you have no more need of me."
So Buddha and his disciples travelled back to his home city. Not far from Kapilavastu they passed through the village of Kusinora. The Buddha asked them to stop there and rest.Then he turned to Ananda and said "This is where I shall pass away."Then Buddha went out into the garden and lay down between two trees. His followers gathered around him. Some were crying, but others, their minds completely at peace, looked on silently.
The Buddha spoke for the last time. "Remember what I have taught you. Craving and desire are the cause of all unhappiness. Everything sooner or later must change, so do not become attached to anything. Instead devote yourself to clearing your mind and finding true, lasting happiness."(Source)

Ageing happens at three levels: Chronological, Biological, Psychological. As Buddha said, old age, sickness and death are inevitable.

Dr Hegde quoted from the interview given by  Author/physician Shigeaki Hinohara when he was 97 years and 4 months to the Japan Times.
Shigeaki Hinohara

 'Energy comes from feeling good, not from eating well or sleeping a lot.
All people who live long — regardless of nationality, race or gender — share one thing in common: None are overweight.
Always plan ahead. My schedule book is already full until 2014, with lectures and my usual hospital work. In 2016 I’ll have some fun, though: I plan to attend the Tokyo Olympics! 
There is no need to ever retire, but if one must, it should be a lot later than 65. Share what you know. I give 150 lectures a year, some for 100 elementary-school children, others for 4,500 business people. I usually speak for 60 to 90 minutes, standing, to stay strong. 
When a doctor recommends you take a test or have some surgery, ask whether the doctor would suggest that his or her spouse or children go through such a procedure. Contrary to popular belief, doctors can’t cure everyone. So why cause unnecessary pain with surgery? I think music and animal therapy can help more than most doctors imagine. 
To stay healthy, always take the stairs and carry your own stuff. I take two stairs at a time, to get my muscles moving.
My inspiration is Robert Browning’s poem “Abt Vogler.” My father used to read it to me. It encourages us to make big art, not small scribbles. It says to try to draw a circle so huge that there is no way we can finish it while we are alive. All we see is an arch; the rest is beyond our vision but it is there in the distance.
 Pain is mysterious, and having fun is the best way to forget it. If a child has a toothache, and you start playing a game together, he or she immediately forgets the pain. 
Don’t be crazy about amassing material things. Remember: You don’t know when your number is up, and you can’t take it with you to the next place. 
Find a role model and aim to achieve even more than they could ever do. My father went to the United States in 1900 to study at Duke University in North Carolina. He was a pioneer and one of my heroes. Later I found a few more life guides, and when I am stuck, I ask myself how they would deal with the problem. 
It’s wonderful to live long. Until one is 60 years old, it is easy to work for one’s family and to achieve one’s goals. But in our later years, we should strive to contribute to society. Since the age of 65, I have worked as a volunteer. I still put in 18 hours seven days a week and love every minute of it.'  
(See full interview reported in Japan Times here)
Dr Hegde also mentioned about the following book. It is worth reading.

(Kathopanishad is a unique Upanishad which starts with a katha (a story) of a young boy who is ready to face the Lord of Death in his quest for Truth to know what lies beyond death. He asks the very pertinent and philosophical question, Is there or is there not, and if it is, what is it? In short, this teaching is an extravaganza of spiritual knowledge and meditation that guides a student step by step to the glorious state of immortality, peace and bliss. You can buy the book from Flipkart)

 Dr Hegde drew attention to four simple Sanskrit words, “Deham Naham Koham Soham”
• Deham = Body (Deh) am (is);
• Naham = I Am (ham) not (Na);
• Koham = Who (Ko am I (ham)?
• Soham = I am (ham) That (So).

We can see below a Christian discourse by a scholar in the above context.

“While they were at the table He took bread, gave thanks and broke it and gave it to them saying, ‘This is my body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’” (Luke 22:19). He also took a cup with some wine and did the same saying, “This Is My Blood”. When Jesus said, “This is My Body” He was teaching the disciples the truth of the Bible and of all the Scriptures: 'I am not this Body - I do not identify Myself with the body. (Deham Naham - I am not the body. Koham? Soham – Who am I? I am that.) Because I am not the body, I break it and give it up for you. In the same way, you should do the same in My memory. You should give up body consciousness. This is a Divine Command.' 

Ven. Tenzin Namdak

Ven. Tenzin Namdak who was an environmental researcher for the Ministry of Agriculture, Netherlands before he took Bhikshu ordination from H.H Dalai Lama spoke extensively on Spiritual Empowerment.

He emphasized the following in his talk:

Every being has the wish for happiness. One needs to eliminate the destructive emotions  to be truly happy. Only by self-awareness, one can  recognize and understand the nature of destructive emotions. Self-discipline can prevent the manifestations of destructive emotions by applying their antidotes. There should be sustained contemplation by reflecting again and again on the reasoning that establishes the faults of destructive emotions and the positive qualities of their antidotes. Loving kindness and compassion can eliminate destructive emotions.

Anger, Attachment and Ignorance (stemming from deliberate action or inaction) are destructive emotions.  There is no weekend course to eliminate anger. One has to learn through the experience that anger is a destructive emotion and then try to take deliberate steps to avoid it.

Every person thinks that he suffers more than others. The fact is that suffering is universal. Ageing is a reality. Understanding that reality is the antidote to ignorance. There is no use  worrying about ageing. Cosmetic industry plays to that worry. Understanding impermanence leads to a better acceptance of ageing. This will lessen the suffering.

Dr S Kalyanasundaram

Dr S Kalyanasundaram, a Professor of Psychiatry at NIMHANS  and past President of Indian Psychiatric Society spoke on ‘Emotional Empowerment’.

He emphasized the following in his talk.

Everyone wants to live longer, without realizing what we want to live for? It is necessary for all to get engaged in productive activities or in social, economic, cultural and civic affairs. This is called active ageing.

Active ageing is the recognition and support to achieve one’s potential, continuous engagement with family and society, independence, and retaining one’s dignity despite the adverse environment.

Autonomy is just a click away with the Information Technology. Senior citizens should not be reluctant to learn to use the internet and the social media.

No point in complaining ‘What is it I can’t do’.  Share happily with others ‘what I can do’. What are the areas in  which there is an improvement in health conditions? What are the things you learned new? What is the knowledge you gained recently? What are the activities you engaged at home, neighborhood and society? These are the things you need to share when you meet your friends rather than sharing the news of your disabilities. Positive ageing is a stage where you are valued by and contributing to community as age progresses. You need to foster social connections.

At home, you should know where to intervene and where not. You should ‘do with’ rather than ‘do for’ other family members. One should not forget the fact that by being older doesn’t mean that you are wiser than the youngsters at home in everything. Try to respect the inputs from them.

There are four major fears for the senior citizens: a) Fear of the process of dying, b) Fear of losing control, c) Fear of letting go and d) Fear of losing life partner. All these fears are to be fought head-on. Accept the reality as it is.

Concluding note

When my mother who is more than 70 years old tells me that she is going to plant teak and jack-fruit trees on her land, she is in fact ‘growing from ageing’. The message that she gives is, it is never too late to contribute to the society and to the future generations. It is sheer selflessness. What else can bring peace and happiness as one grows old?

Views are personal                                          © Sibichen K Mathew    

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  1. Worth reading it sibichacha....good one..

  2. Following are some comments posted in my Facebook page on the article:

    Ashok Shahapur The need to age gracefully, since the beginning has provided has provided a receptive audience for social scientists , psychologists , writers governments, NGOs and experts of every persuasion. There is never shortage of the experts ready to find explanations for the observed phenomena to provide solutions/advice for the improvement or 'how to' aspect of the 'issue' . Yet there are many unforeseen events/circumstances , way of ones living ,even our common sense, may some times let us down. Old age need not be sterile or uneventful as many think. You article reflects and shows how old age can be quite interesting and enjoyable : if one has enjoyable creative hobbies and pursuits and if one learns something new everyday. The problem is people seldom think or plan about living 'aging gracefully' phase. Many just live till the time to say good bye to 'life' comes . Many are of the attitude that 'let me think of crossing the bridge when i come to it .' There is a generation gap which is widening. Old persons loose their cool, sparks fly with son and daughter in law. Both the parties need to look /perceive and think from other persons point of view. With the understanding lacking in both aging gracefully is becoming difficult in many cases. The 'X' generation do not think from elders point of view and the elders from the point of view of today's youth. Whether old or young many are not open to change. The need is 'to increase the capacity to change' , though positive aspects of change may be less obvious at first than the negative one.
    October 18

    Shikhar Sahai A relevant and thought-provoking piece on a topical subject.
    October 21

    Ananthanarayanan Vaidyanathan I read the post and made some comment on the above.. was not approved.. hope you did not think it was worth.. Or is it some electronic glitch?
    October 24

  3. Comments in my Facebook page

    Ananthanarayanan Vaidyanathan
    My idea was that age is nothing more than a number.. and for a man with some passion when there are no more targets and action plans to be attended whether he likes it or not,
    Old age means freedom, coupled with knowledge fortified with experience..
    In Gita Krishna says that for this body, childhood, youth, old age and departure from this body are all too natural and a man who is brave never get affected by it.. देहिनोस्मिनयथापार्थकौमारं यौवनं जरा तदा देहान्तरप्राप्तिः धीरःतत्र न मुह्यति
    and Krishna again described births were akin to man just throwing away his old and faded clothes and wearing new ones..
    Indian tradition was always to respect age, and knowledge at old age was just a bonus..
    So old age is full of grace and happiness, or it should be..
    It was some thing to this effect that I posted.. Sibichen Mathew sir.
    October 24

    Rolee Agarwal: Sibi I love these thoughts esp Hinohara! Keep them coming!

    Sibichen Mathew:You are right AnanthanarayananJi, we tend to get liberated a bit in the old age. But I am not sure whether the bonds get loosened. Till that time we don't enjoy real freedom. We are used to get attached with this world. That is why I felt that one should experience the four ashramas not chronologically but simultaneously at the right proportions (with priority as per ashramas) . In that case one would be used to all aspects of life and detachment would be easy at the later stage of life, while we give priority to Sanyasa.

  4. Sibichen Mathew:
    Let me reproduce Brahma Prakash Gaur sir's views: (quoting from his message)
    Dear Sibichen! As usual you have written extremely well and have raised some wonderful points. I may, however, not be the right person to give a view on ageing. From within I do not feel that I have aged. Yet, I can see my physical self being placed under limitation (a knee problem has restricted my movements). This does not bother me. At some level I do not feel that I need to achieve or acquire anything anymore. At another, I would love to expand my horizons through reading and meditation. There is a readiness to accept ageing, and its eventual culmination - death. If the angel of Death were to knock at my door this moment, I hope, I would be ready to go with him, as if leaving for a walk on the street. You have referred to Kathopanishad. It is one of my favourites. It is the story of Nachiketa, who goes to Yamaraja (the Lord of Death) for instruction into the secret of life. There is immense wisdom here. Nachiketa is investigating death. Who can be a better teacher than Yama. However, when Nachiketa reaches Yama's door, to his surprise he discovers that the Lord of Death is away and is not to be found. Nachiketa waits for 3 days before Yama appears. There is great symbolism here. The world fears death and is constantly running away from it. Those who seek higher wisdom investigate death. And, then they find that death is not real. It is just a figment of imagination. Body will wither away, when the time comes. But, there is no death ever for the spirit. So, in my own view, ageing need not be discussed, when one wishes to unlock the riddle of existence. Death must be! Because, if and when experienced consciously, death alone holds the answers to all our queries about our existence. I hope, I am not torpedoing a structured discussion that was going somewhere.Ageing is irrelevant, when we look at maturity. Maturity is an affair of the mind and soul. It has little to do with the body that is going to follow the laws of nature and wither away one day. It is the mind and soul that brings beauty to and ageing and aged body. Lots of love, Gaur

  5. Ananthanarayanan Vaidyanathan: Personally I do not believe in death or even ageing.. Compared to the vast continuum of infinite magnitude that is time, the life of any being, be it thousand years or a few seconds, is just too trifle..
    Maybe some chemical rearrangement of the One who possesses infinite wisdom-- that is our lifespan..
    The concept stands proved to my mind judged by the very fact that the living beings or organisms of varied species, as also being born in the same species, posses different levels of fitness and knowledge even at the moment they are born or are introduced to this arena by that Master..
    The different levels could have in all probability, stemmed out of the prior existence of the being in some other form..Hindus believe in rebirth...
    Hinduism in general would appear to subscribe to the idea of some inherited Karma, inherited intelligence etc, and also the Karma and intelligence or knowledge acquired during the lifetime..
    Some believe that we are given each life to live off and compensate for the bad Karmas.. or alternately good Karmas practiced by us in earlier lives..
    And it is something like a balancing of centripetal and centrifugal forces that is keeping the beings in the orbit of Karma, and it is also believed that the Supreme Being of Infinite wisdom can, if It pleases to do so, give us some small push, which can provide us escape velocity from this cycle..cycle of birth and death, and the orbit of Karma --unto emancipation, which we call Moksha..
    He is never born in reality, nor He is dying, He had no origin,
    He is eternal.. goes on Gita describing the Atma, and in advaitam the life force inside us is nothing but that atma..or paramatma..Na jayate mriyate vaa kadaachit.naayam bhootwa bhavitaa na bhooyaH ajo nityaH saashvatoyam purano, na hanyate hanyamane shareerey..

    Sannyasam is only a state of mind.. the four Ashramas of Brahmacharya, Grihasta, Vanaprastha and Sannyasa are deviced by the Lawmakers to give some orderliness to life.
    In Mahabharatham Bheeshma's seven elder brothers were thrown away into river Ganga even as they were born to Her by Ganga herself, almost for this reason
    Shankara could graduate to sannyasam at the age of seven, without entering the other ashrams..

  6. Ananthanarayanan Vaidyanathan: I see the greatest lesson from this . Those who fear death and bolt and hide and pray and try to cajole destiny to avoid the Yamaraja atop his black buffalo are chased and finished off with clinical precision well in time..
    Nachiketa was an exception.. Just because he was offered as a present to Yama by his father in a fit of rage, he pursued Yama to the latter's abode, to find that Yama was on duty elsewhere..
    And when Yama realizes when he returns home that he has kept his noble guest waiting for three days, it is the turn of the God of death to atone for the disrespect to the young but bold boy but also to send him back to live a full life..
    See the irony.. the bold man with a sense of purpose and dedication could keep even the toughest taskmaster that was Yama on the defensive.. Death runs away from one who has come to offer himself to be taken by it..
    Another lesson is that Yama was ready to offer all material wealth and comforts to the boy, but when it came to imparting of the most secretive knowledge about death,
    Yama tried to test the boy's mettle to the full by offering all the allurements which would have trapped any normal human being , and the knowledge was imparted only when the student was found to be absolutely free from temptations and completely fit to receive the knowledge.. So at the end of the day, determination, courage and sincerity triumph..

  7. Its a very beautiful reading sir! It requires courage to age with grace and dignity. A lot of younger generations like me sometimes dread at living too long for fear of loneliness, diseases and depression out of old age. For fear of living without anything else much to do post retirement. Hoewver, aftear reading your article, it makes me feel that age is not a factor to stop doing what you love. It could be developing a hobby that you have always loved but couldn't pursue during the working years. Like getting your hands to train into clicking those beautiful landscape pictures that you've always wanted but couldn't due to work pressure during the working years. And doing what you love to do in your free time is what gives us immense pleasure and energy to keep going. A lot of people nowdays end up having to love what they do. Maybe post retirement is a perfect opportunity to do what we love. And that, maybe, is what will make our years go by just like the flip of a page. Just like that. Thank you for this article. And I am definitely going to share it in my facebook wall.

    1. Thanks a lot dear Joymanik Savio for your wonderful feedback and valuable inputs. I am glad that you have a clear perspective on the issue. Thanks for sharing.


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