If we cling to a past that has outlived its utility, we are just setting the stage for unhappiness and discontent
The Times of India (New Delhi edition) 29 Aug 2016
My newest friend is 89 years old. She is a smart and intelligent woman, having retired as professor from a top university. When we talk finance, she laughs. She wonders why it is so difficult for so many to give up managing assets when they age.
Stories about the elderly, especially the very old, tend to be about their care or the lack of it. Most of us judge the young harshly for not caring enough for their parents. Not my friend. She believes that expecting someone else to do something for you stems from an attitude of entitlement, however well couched that expectation may be in lofty words of duty, gratitude and care. She lives in an assisted care facility, the much-maligned old-age home. But she argues that this is how it should be. Let me list her decisions for all of us to think about.
First, she is firm in her belief that the desire to own and use assets should be given up at some point. We have to recognise that we are not capable of manag- ing them anymore. When she found that her physical agility was declining after she turned 80, she decided to stop managing her large house. This was the house she had lived in for 50 years. She built it with her husband. This was the house her children grew up in. She decided to sell it off and move on to an option, which didn’t involve managing or maintaining anything. It was a tough decision, but the best one. The sale also secured her finances like nothing else could have.
Second, finances should be kept as simple as possible. My friend was a savvy investor and had been a very involved manager of her money. But she eventually decided to give it up. She says the modern world of technology and change is something she cannot keep pace with. She has heard of scams which some of her friends fell victim to and got duped. She is aware she could accidentally download a malware that destroys her computer and accesses her accounts. She would rather steer clear of it.
She has one bank account and her money and investments are all available for her to see in a single statement. She has drafted her will and registered it too. She draws from her money as required, but her needs have reduced drastically. Her only need is the periodic payments she has to make to the assisted facility. She does not want to make financial decisions that involve anything more than writing out a few cheques every month. Given her age, drawing out of the corpus is not something that bothers her.
Third, she refuses to obsess over illness. Her advice to me was to take good care of my limbs. She says the vital organs such as the heart and the brain are designed to work hard and for a long time, without any intervention. But we are in charge of the limbs. It would be a pity if the heart was ticking fine, but the legs couldn’t carry us around. She has set aside an amount for care if she were to fall ill and is adamant that she should not be put on life support. She sees herself in the wind-down mode, having lived a full life, and takes great pleasure in sitting on her porch and watching birds, trees and the setting sun. There is a time for action and a time for rest, she says.
Fourth, she nurtures an excellent relationship with her children. She refuses to burden them with caring for her when they have enough on their hands already. She knows that they care about her and love her, but she does not lean on them too much. I remember the advice my father’s gave me when I got married. Look ahead, he told me. Do for your children what I did for you, and more. Do not get caught up in this emotional trap of gratitude and guilt about me. It sounded so harsh. But having cared for both parents and in-laws in their old age, I know that children simply cannot give up on their parents. My friend knows this too, but she ensures that she does not command a position of entitlement when it comes to her children. Her children dote on her, and she does not burden them with guilt.
We all need money, relationships and support systems to see us through as we grow old. But speaking to my friend and the others in the facility tells me that the happiest are the ones who have given up things they had once clung to, while those who expected the world to take care of them remain cynical and angry.
There is no denying that we should live a life of gratitude. Every society should treat its elderly with respect, love and affection. But elders like my friend accept the idea that such care can be burdensome, and therefore work towards the goal of reducing that burden—financially, physically and emotionally. By keeping her life simple and bare bones, she has not given up on her little joys. She knows what she has, and she continues to nurture and care for it. What she has given up is the need to cling to the past as she knew it. She told me that going to the assisted living facility is like sending the young out to college. They will miss home, but will soon be fine. After every conversation with her, I wonder if I will have the courage to simplify my life the way she has managed to.