By Suma Varughese
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?
One 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 beta-carotene, vitamin C, Vitamin E, and selenium by including fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds in your daily diet.”
Each has to find their own approach that suits their individual temperaments and inclination, but the golden rule is moderation. In her book, The 12 Secrets of Health and Happiness, Louise Samways gives a good tip when she says, “Listen to what your body really feels it needs (even some junk occasionally), not what you emotionally crave. Learn what is food for the body and what is food for the soul.”
Exercise is another must, to help us to combat the ravages of time and safeguard our health. Says Sheilu Srinivasan, editor and head of the Dignity Dialogue magazine and Foundation, a magazine and organisation that concerns itself with the welfare of senior citizens. “Physical exercise is absolutely essential. Otherwise, you will get into problems with your body, which will create depression and then it is downhill from there.”
Mumbai-based Swami Brahmavidananda, who has a number of elders studying Vedanta with him, advocates the higher reaches of yoga including pranayama and the temple art version of t’ai chi.
Dada Vaswani advocates and practises a brisk walk every day for 30 to 60 minutes.
The mind is at the root of all health and happiness and therefore the mind needs to be taken care of with even more assiduity than the body. The first component of mental fitness is attitude. Somewhere along the way, we need to find a wholesome philosophy that enables us to have a positive approach to life. A philosophy that enables us to be easy on ourselves and others, to outgrow judgementalism, cultivate flexibility and self-reliance.
Perhaps the most important of all is to see the challenges of life as teachers and not as demons out to destroy us. This one perspective can enable us to welcome life and not fear it; to grow with life, and increase our stores of capability and capacity. Such an attitude will help us to see the good in everything, and to progress towards acceptance and surrender. Says Dadi Janki, “The greatest challenge about growing old is in the mind – in having thoughts such as ‘I am growing old’ and feelings of helplessness. Whenever people ask me about my age, I see the wonder of having never forgotten that I am a child of God. As a child, I have connection with Him through which so much power comes into me.”
We also learn that all the accidental twists and turns of life have actually worked out for the best. Shambu Dass, 85, is a retired assistant registrar at BITS, Pilani. Today, happily settled among his children, who are academics at the University, he looks back at his life, and says that although he would never have voluntarily made some of his career choices, they actually worked out for the best. A student of spirituality and a follower of Mahatma Gandhi since the age of 15, he was at a loss when illness compelled him to discontinue his college education. A family friend persuaded him to join the army, an option alien to his mindset, but in the absence of choices he signed up, and spent the next 16 years there. Says he, “Looking back, those years left me wiser and enriched.”
Recognising that things work out for the best, encourages us to keep our minds open to new learnings. Says Meher, “I think being busy is the most important thing. I totally disagree with the mindset that looks at old age as an excuse not to do things. Today, the concept of age is really stretching. People are having kids at 40 and finding new professions at 60. I’m always learning. I have overcome my block against technology. My computer skills are increasing. From using it only as a word processor, I can now do photoshop. I never thought I could learn to use the digital camera but now I can’t live without it. Maybe I cannot do the Bharatnatyam and kathak that I learnt at school, but I enjoy doing my workouts with Bollywood Masala Bhangra.”
Swami Brahmavidananda also advocates continuous learning and activity, “You have to keep yourself intellectually alive.”
Mrs Bir Sawney who at 78 runs a school, takes care of her household and is supervising the building of a family home in Khandala, says firmly, “Be active and do what you like.” She also advocates going out as an essential ingredient of staying happy. “My mother-in-law could not walk, but she would take the car, go to the vegetable market, call the man to the window, and buy her veggies.”
My own mother at age 88 is a beehive of quiet productive activity. Severe osteoporosis compels her to walk extremely slowly, and with a cane, but nothing stops her from supervising the kitchen, making masalas, cooking up special dishes, and in general, running the house. She has been advised often enough to hang up her hat and retire but her unchanging answer is, “If I sit, I will keep on sitting.” I would attribute her continuing good health to this policy.
Mrs Bir Sawney takes a similarly intrepid attitude towards household duties, albeit for different reasons, “Never leave the running of the house to the daughter or daughter-in-law. They will cook what they, their children and their husbands like. They won’t care about the old woman living there. I handle the cooking. While making sure that what everyone else likes is made, I also ensure that I am getting food to my taste and need.”
She has other very practical advice, “Keep contact with your woman friends. They are growing old like you, and they can be an inspiration. I belong to three groups where I go once a month. This helps overcome loneliness.”
Loneliness is certainly one of the scourges of old age. Says Dada, “Children grow up and leave you. Your friends depart one by one. To combat loneliness, keep yourself busy with creative activity. Look out for opportunities to be of help to others.”
Dadi Janki, who is custodian to several lakhs of followers all over the world, testifies to the efficacy of such advice, “I have gone beyond limits. I feel the whole world is my unlimited family, that the globe is in my hands. One part is light, the other is dark, but yet the sun is serving 24 hours. Clouds may come in front of the sun, but the sun keeps doing its own work, and the clouds always disperse. I also continue to serve in the same way.”
Ameeta Sanghavi Shah also advocates developing a new purpose. “Do some social work, consulting, learn a new talent. One hears of elders taking a new degree. If you recognise that we live again and again, this is not a waste of time. After all, knowledge is what we will take with us, not money and things.”
Above all, one must learn to safeguard against loss. Says Dada, “The longer you live, the greater is the number of deaths of dear ones you will have to watch. Be careful of guarding yourself against self-pity. You must not allow your life to come to a standstill. Marie Curie lost her husband, Pierre, who was knocked down by a vehicle while crossing the street. To Marie Curie this was the end of the world. She would repeatedly kiss the blood-stained garments of her husband, until her sister finally burnt the clothes.
“Grief at the loss of a loved one is natural, but excessive grief paralyses. The Gita says that the mind is one’s friend and one’s foe. You must always be on guard that you do not become your own foe. Therefore always trust in the Divine Power. Howsoever tragic be the experience through which we have to pass, let us remind ourselves of the truth: God is our loving Father, Mother. He will never let anything happen which may harm us, his children.”
There are other less significant losses, but equally to be confronted. For those who have been used to a successful working life with all its perks of authority and command, retirement can be demoralising. Says Ameeta Sanghavi Shah, “When you retire, not only are you deprived of yes men at work, but your children have also grown up and they are not saying ‘yes’ any more. It’s natural to feel neglected and ignored. It’s important to recognise that this is a natural life cycle. And to prepare for it by getting your ego satisfaction through other activities. Many men feel that they will have more time to spend with their wives, but they don’t recognise that the wife has her own set routine, and their presence may actually disturb her.”
Old age also calls for cultivating flexibility and adapting to one’s present situation. “Just because you have always entertained in a certain fashion does not mean you should continue to do so,” says Shah. “Learn to downsize – have the catering ordered in, socialise closer to home, or if necessary, get a driver. If you are used to a dal-roti-chawal-subji diet, try sandwiches once in a while.”
Then there are the bodily losses as it gradually winds down. Loss of eyesight, hearing, ability to walk, and so on. None of these are easy to bear, unless we have cultivated a spiritual outlook.
Everything that we have advocated in the earlier section gets naturally taken care of if we are spiritually evolved.
Says Swami Brahmavidananda, “Existential crises can be managed by psychology but only negated by spirituality.”
Perhaps the most significant truth that spirituality gives us as we stand on the threshold of mortality is to know that we are not the body.
Says Swami Veda Bharati, Life Positive columnist and resident acharya of the Swami Rama ashram in Rishikesh,“Atman is ageless. Those who live in this awareness are never young or old. They recognise that the body chemistry changes but that does not affect their mind’s identifications or atman awareness.”
Swami Chidanand Saraswati, guru of Parmarth ashram, Rishikesh, adds, “We must not fear death, for it is not really WE who are dying. It is merely the old, tattered, worn-out vehicle in which we have traversed many miles and years. To try to hold on to a body whose time and usage have long since expired is to thwart our own progress.”
When the body is beset with aches and pains and in the fullness of time, our physical organs fail, there is great solace in recognising that none of this is our true self. We are immortal spirit, and when the body dies, we will be freed to return to our heavenly home, and in time, take another body.
The more we identify with the body, the more mortal the body gets. Our body-centric identity is focused on the pains and frailties of the body. Knowledge of being spirit can actually turn this around and cause the body to become younger, lighter, more spirit-like.
Dadi Janki concurs, “Spiritual power means that the soul is in the body just for namesake, but it is the power of the soul which makes the body work. Age is connected with the physical body, but the soul is getting younger by the day, because it is filled with power and strength. This is what makes the body work.”
Through the power of the spirit, disease and decay can be banked considerably. Adds Dadi Janki, “It is very easy to abolish old age and disease. Illnesses are created through thoughts. People have such thoughts that they become trapped in them. This affects their heads, hearts and the body also. The body becomes paralysed through such thoughts and they have no control over them, they are completely dependent. Disease means dis-ease. There is not that easiness and lightness in life, and this is what creates disease. Be light, whatever has come will also go. Have that subtle faith inside and become your own healer. Take power and love from God and put yourself right.”
Awareness of spirit can ignite you with radiance and charm. Says Swami Veda Bharti who is above 70, “As one’s spiritual energy grows a certain magnetism increases. This is a far better compensation for the fading looks than that given by the youth-enhancing creams available in the market.”
It’s not a coincidence that every one of the spiritual masters quoted in this section are themselves powerful examples of graceful aging. Their practice of spiritual values keeps them happy, joyful, healthy and young.
Spirituality also accesses faith in a Higher Power and that is definitely the greatest strength we can have while negotiating our increasingly frail craft through the final crossing. Says Dada Vaswani, “I often repeat to myself the following words, “Thou knowest everything, my Beloved, let Thy will always be done. In joy and sorrow, my Beloved, let Thy will always be done.”
Faith accesses acceptance and surrender, and we have enormous need of these resources as we stand in the sunset of our lives. Clothed with these, we become invulnerable to changing circumstances, to the passage of health, strength and family. We become powerful within ourselves, peaceful and contented. We are at peace with our circumstances – with pain, with illness, with loneliness, with death.
Cultivating the spirit is therefore the fundamental requisite of old age. The more we immerse ourselves in it, the more ammunition we get for living.
Says Dada Vaswani, “You must develop an intimate and loving relationship with God. If possible spend the evenings in satsang, which also affords you the fellowship of kindred souls.”
Adds Swami Chidanand Saraswati, “The mantra for this final yatra must be: less chatting and more chanting. One’s time in this final phase of life needs to be focused only on the Divine. Rather than spend time sitting around chatting purposelessly, every minute of the day should be spent in preparation for the final journey, one whose departure date is never known.”
As you stand at the very edge of life and see the other side beckoning, you can let go with ease and simply entrust yourself into the unknown, because the unknown is immersed in God. Says Swami Chidanand Saraswati, “To die is simply to move from one room to another room. As we journey from elementary school to high school to college and university, learning and growing more and more with each stage, so we move from body to body and life to life in order to continue learning, growing and evolving closer and closer to Divine Realisation.”
Spirituality frees us of our greatest fear – of death, and truly frees us to live – even as we inch towards death.
If there is one thing you should do to prepare for old age it is this – cultivate spirituality now!
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