By Suma Varughese February 2008 How can we prepare for the last and most difficult stretch of human life – old age? How can we ensure that we remain mentally and physically fit, brimming over with energy, enthusiasm and joy? I have just put down the phone on a dear friend of mine, who was weeping because she was 80, all alone, and ill. For the nth time, I think to myself, old age is not easy. The Buddha listed old age among one of the sufferings that all human flesh is heir to. When I read or hear stories of elders bedridden and helpless, alone and lonely, locked in contentious relationships with family, bad-tempered and crotchety, or lost in an Alzheimer daze, I wonder how on earth one can ever muster the strength to voyage through the last and most stormy crossing of our lives. Fortunately, there are thousands of shining examples who seem to have a placid, even joyous, time of it. They stand like beacons in the darkness, shedding hope and inspiration, telling us it can be done and showing us by their own lustrous example how to do it. In old age as in everything else, there are no standard milestones. Some grey at the age of 30, and others proudly bear a headful of black hair at 70. Some have skins as wrinkled and folded as a raisin’s. Others still carry a youthful sheen and smoothness into their 70s and 80s. Some are bent over, others are as straight as lamp-posts. Some lose their memories and ramble on disconnectedly. Others are as alert and active as they were in their prime. Some fold up like umbrellas by 60, while others continue to trample down the freeway of life, contributing, creating, achieving and being. So what makes the difference? How can we be in the second category – the ones whom age cannot ravage, and instead seems to varnish with a certain mellow radiance? At 90, Dada Vaswani, head of the Pune-based Sadhu Vaswani Mission, is an outstanding example. With his smooth unwrinkled skin, bright eyes, and wide smile, Dada appears ageless. I had first met him in early 1998 for an interview, and his appearance then and now is unchanged. He still keeps a bruising schedule, looking after the spiritual needs of his followers spread across the globe. He writes articles and books, meets people, records for his TV programmes, gives discourses, holds satsangs and travels around the world. One has never seen him discomposed or impatient. He retains a serene, solicitous composure, always anxious to secure the other’s welfare. When asked for the secret of his own youthfulness, he says, “I refuse to believe I am 90. I always think of myself as sitting on the lap of the Mother Divine, who is so loving, so caring.” What a delicious image, to think of oneself as a gurgling infant, safe in one’s mother’s arms, beyond all worry or fear. He adds, “When problems come that I cannot solve, I tell her, ‘Here is a problem for you to solve, Mother,’ and she always finds a solution. Sometimes, I face a bitter experience, but She gives me so much strength that I simply sail through it.” He recalls his bypass operation conducted a few years ago in the US. He says, “I thought the Mother did not want me to go through that, but when the doctors said that angioplasty was not possible in my case, I went to the Mother and took Her permission for the bypass. It was a difficult operation. They opened me up three times, but ultimately I sailed through it. They told me that had the operation been performed in India I may not have survived; perhaps that is why I did not get permission from the Mother to have the bypass done in India.” One can only wonder at Dada’s implicit faith and relationship with the Divine and his ability to let himself be guided by Her. So how can we best confront and tackle old age so that we too can sail through it like Dada does? Ameeta-Sanghavi Shah, a therapist and counsellor, suggests that preparation is one of the key factors that enables us to weather the silver years. Indeed, one could say that preparation for old age should really be a lifelong enterprise for old age is the reward for how we lead our lives. If we have led fairly productive, happy lives, done our duties to the best of our abilities, achieved a modest level of success in our enterprises, obeyed the dictates of our conscience, taken good care of our mental and physical health, cultivated a network of loving family and friends, well, we can reasonably expect to lead a good, happy life right through. Meher Castellino, who has led a fairly full life by any standards will testify to that. Miss India in 1964 and a leading model for several years after that, she has been a garment designer, before entering into fashion journalism. At a time when fashion received less than nil coverage in the mainstream press, Meher was fashion editor of a now defunct magazine called GFQ (where we happened to be colleagues) writing knowledgeably about inseams, plackets and overlocking. She has weathered her fair share of tragedies as well, such as the demise of her husband when her two children, Christina and Karl, were still very young. Today at 60, she is mellow and joyous, leading a vigorous life in fashion, travelling across the globe as a fashion chronicler, choreographing shows herself, judging a few, and even serving as a consultant to those who seek her advice. A follower of Meher Baba, spirituality entered her life around 10 years back and it is to this that she attributes her newfound serenity and peace. She says, “Earlier, when bad things happened, I would say, ‘Why me?’ Now I can ask the question, ‘Why not me?’ And when I look back at my life, I find that everything happened for the best.” She says, “The day my husband passed away, my life was like a black tunnel, and I was tempted to finish myself off, but the thought of my two children kept me on. Today, I feel a hundred times stronger than I was then. All the painful experiences such as the death of my husband led me to spirituality, so they were positives in the ultimate analysis. People who have known me over the years tell me I am more gentle and kind today.” That perhaps is one of the great fallouts of meeting life’s challenges successfully. One simply gets better with time. My own cherished theory which I hope to prove right as I go along is that if we live right, our lives should actually expand with age, and not contract. By meeting and conquering each of life’s vicissitudes, we will expand in strength, courage, joy, happiness, love and other internal qualities. With each year our life force should be that much stronger, our ability to live life that much more refined. As things fall out in the external world: health becoming frail, spouse dying, retirement separating us from a busy life… our internal life can accelerate in power and intensity. To be able to experience a sunset with peace, joy and stillness, to savour a cup of tea as if for the last time, to radiate a quiet strength and joy that draws people close to us – surely such an old age can actually be a blessing for us and others! Concurs Dada, “I feel it is not necessary to grow old. One can grow in years and still remain young. Youth is a state of mind. If your mind remains fresh, if you are prepared to make new experiments with your life, you can contrive to remain young all your life.” The redoubtable Dadi Janki, head of the Brahma Kumari World Spiritual University at 90, adds passionately, “Even young people are not able to do what I am able to do in old age.” Surely such a life is worth aspiring for? How can you and I cultivate it? Physical HealthOne of the key areas we need to cultivate in order to enjoy the latter years of our life, is physical health. In the first two decades of our lives, we can afford to treat our body cavalierly, eat the wrong food in vast quantities, deprive it of rest, and it will still chug along reliably. But as the years go by, the churlish treatment will tell. We will have to pay for every last potato chip. If we don’t do it ourselves, sooner or later the body will compel us to draw the line, and to change our diet through giving us diseases. It is far better to submit to discipline early in life, and eat in moderation. As you grow in years, this advice becomes imperative. Says Dada Vaswani, “Learn to reduce your intake of food. Eat less. More proteins like milk, cheese, nuts and lentils. Have minimal starches and fats. A wholesome rule would be to keep the mind open and the refrigerator closed!” Nutritionist Anjali Mukerjee has three pieces of advice “GO ORGANIC! Eat more foods that grow on trees and plants, and eat less food that is manufactured in plants. Drink green tea and plenty of water.” Meher Castellino eschews all whites like white rice, sugar, milk products and maida. She enjoys fruits like apples and papayas plentifully and opts for chappatis made from alternative grains like ragi, jowar and bajra. Brown rice is a great source of nutrition. Not only has this regimen enabled her to lose considerable weight, but it has also staved off a borderline diabetes condition. Advises nutritionist Naini Setalvad, “Detoxify the body. Inner cleansing or detoxification is a process of clearing toxins from the body, thereby cleansing it of mucus and congestion. It is important as an overall lifestyle, and needs specific dietary changes. People with toxicity symptoms like headaches, congestion, backaches, digestive problems and allergies will benefit greatly by detoxification. “Begin by drinking a glass of vegetable juice every day. Raw vegetable juices like carrot juice, amla juice, and mixed vegetable juice are full of known and unknown anti-oxidants and enzymes that help remove toxins and digest food better. “Consume anti-oxidants like
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