Whether in India or elsewhere, elderly people face a real challenge in staying in touch with society and leading fulfilling lives.
In 1936 or today, the same vitality can keep you forever young
"I am young as long as I work," announced my 70-year-old grandfather. As a youngster of 16 in 1936, I was always impressed with his great energy and zeal whenever I visited him in his village of Kalar Wala, in the Punjab of British India. There was no electricity in the village, so my grandfather managed without a fan or light. He supervised all the work on the fields personally, toiled 12 hours a day, led a spartan life and yet was always fresh and vibrant.
Now, 75 years later, we are pampered with conveniences like electricity, running water, telephones, refrigerators, televisions, computers and tablet devices. However, people above the age of 65 seem listless and fatigued. And by the year 2016, India will have 112 million citizens over the age of 60.
This raises issues about the causes of unhappiness and emotional pain as the years advance. One cause is the lack of regular meaningful work. At the age of 65 or 70, it becomes difficult to find a regular job. For people habituated to working eight to 10 hours a day, it is impossible to survive even a day without work. It gives us something to do, structure to the day, as well as money and self-esteem.
But there are many avenues of meaningful work if one musters the discipline and spirit. Post-retirement is a great time for entrepreneurship. Follow your passion.
I can see examples where this has paid rich dividends. A friend, Vadilal, 68, became a property broker after working 35 years with a shipping company. "I conclude two to three deals a month," he said with a gleam in his eye. The deals earn about Dh40,000 per month, but it is that gleam that is more important.
Another retired acquaintance, Mohan, 73, has built a business around plants and flowerpots. He supplies and maintains decorative office plants for 125 different businesses. His staff of 10 visits the offices daily to prune and water the plants.
Many Indian women wait until they are 60 to start small commercial kitchens in their homes, with contracts to supply lunches to office workers.
Many affluent senior citizens do not need the income but are keen to make a difference in their communities. They work with NGOs, which support old age homes, adult literacy schools or similar projects. Some senior citizens teach in colleges.
Senior citizens also form pressure groups to enforce good governance in civic matters. Anna Hazare is a radiant example. At age 74, he spearheads a national movement to rid India of sleaze and corruption.
Another issue that distresses senior citizens is loneliness. We feel unwanted and neglected by family. In all fairness, we have to limit our expectations about time and attention from the young. Even if our children do want to spend time with us, they have gruelling work schedules and competitive lifestyles.
We have to create our own social support groups. Senior citizens associations, laughter clubs, prayer meetings and educational activities can regularly bring us together. We meet new people and forge supportive relationships.
And, of course, senior citizens also experience declining health and energy levels. However, the ageing process can be deferred through rigorous discipline. Management of the daily diet, regular exercise, yoga, sound sleep and a positive attitude can keep a person fit.
Recently we saw Sardar Fauja Singh became the oldest man, at age 100, to complete a marathon in Toronto. He started running at the tender age of 63.
Many older people do feel unwanted. In India, many elders cannot live in care homes because facilities are scarce. Many senior citizens do not have adequate savings and pensions evaporate with inflation. Public health services are wretched in India and private medical attention fiercely expensive.
Fortunately, the tradition of joint families looking after elders still survives. India's government (and others) should sponsor more homes for the aged, give senior citizens a regular pension and provide free medical services.
Benjamin Franklin was a statesman of the US constitutional convention at age 81, Winston Churchill became British prime minister at 75 and Henry Ford ran his Ford Motor Company until he was 84. Age has nothing to do with achievement. If you have a dream and chase it, and you will be forever young.
Hari Chand Aneja is a 90-year-old former corporate executive who now keeps busy with charity work