Ten years with amma, and especially the final three months, has taught me something about elders – they are actually far more valuable than many of us tend to think.
Amma might not have been able to perform all the household tasks. She might have also introduced many constraints on my lifestyle. But she had a profundity of practical knowledge and wisdom which I had the opportunity to observe and be guided on in her final months.
The availability of such a large amount of practical experience, wisdom and knowledge alone should make the lives of elders as important as those who are young.
The 30 year-old Wall Street whiz kid might know how to do fantastic computations to make a million bucks overnight, but he will struggle to keep the whining baby at home satisfied even for a few moments. And the latter might actually be as important to him as the million bucks!
Think about the experience and deep learning that elders have and which happen only with time – something the 30 year old will have to wait for 40 years to get.
While in the case of amma, most of her wisdom was about household practices, it is obvious that it could be about far more diverse topics for other old parents. With the baby boomer generation becoming septuagenarians and octogenarians in the US and Europe, just imagine the professional knowledge and talent and the derived wisdom they have stored in them.
One of the recipients of the 2019 Chemistry Nobel Prize was Dr John Goodenough who received it for his pioneering work that gave us the rechargeable lithium ion battery. He was 97 years old when he received the prize (the oldest person to receive the Prize). Last I read, he still came to work at his laboratory everyday, and recently even announced that he was working on the next generation battery technology. 199
There’s another interesting example of someone contributing to his profession until a very old age – Dr Michael DeBakey, who continued to practice medicine until his death at the age of 99. Dr DeBakey’s case is all the more interesting because his main contribution was in pioneering surgical solutions for aortic dissections and aortic aneurysms – the classification for aortic dissections is in fact called the DeBakey classification. 200
Dr Goodenough and Dr DeBakey might be exceptional cases, but it is indisputable that worldwide there are millions of brilliant minds in their seventies and eighties, who may not be as healthy and lucky as Goodenough and DeBakey but could still contribute significantly intellectually or socially.
Fig 58: Dr John Goodenough receiving the US National Science Medal in 2013, when he was 90 years old
Fig 59: Dr Michael DeBakey at work in his nineties
Can we come up with simple systems and processes to enable better transfer and utilization of such experience, wisdom and intellect from elders – something I’m sure they would love to do, and something the family, neighbourhood and even the rest of the world could benefit from?
Those of us with ammas and appas in their seventies and eighties know they may not be there with us much longer. We would absolutely like to spend enriching times with them.
Yet, many of us will attempt off-the-shelf, readymade solutions, especially if our parents are in their seventies and eighties. With our lifestyles, it appears that these are the best, and possibly the only feasible, way forward.
We hence find many elders today spending their lives in old age homes, living alone, or in some cases, leading fairly lonely lives despite living with their sons or daughters.
Hardly amenable environments for enriching relationships and enduring contributions.
At the same time, it is undeniable that elders bring with them significant challenges.
They can apply brakes on our fast-moving lives. Trying to align our personal lives and pursuits to theirs to create meaningful relationships could be quite impractical in many cases. Many of them – especially octogenarians and older people – may simply not be in a position to contribute much owing to their challenging physical or mental status. 201
I remember the case of my sister’s mother-in-law, someone I liked immensely for her childlike innocence. She had Parkinson’s disease and passed away a couple of years back, when she was 84 years old. She had stayed along with my sister and brother-in-law at their Allentown, Pennsylvania residence until two years before her death. But in her last two years, she was unable to manage herself and it was becoming increasingly risky to have her at home all alone when the rest were away on work. Having a nurse for her at home worked only to a certain extent. Finally, not having a choice, they chose a home care for her – fortunately, they found a home care center close enough to their house so they could visit her almost every day. In cases such as these, I do not see any other option.
But in cases like amma and people like her, there are indeed options.
We all will unanimously agree in principle that old lives matter a lot, but I’m not sure if we have a template that can make them matter in practice.
In amma’s case too, there were physical constraints aplenty while trying to engage with her. And going beyond physical, I also had to follow many rules laid down by her and adapt to some of her whims and fancies. Were all these worth the effort? For me, absolutely yes, and not just because of the tangible value I gained in the process. It was more because she mattered a lot to me.
The satisfaction derived from such experiences with someone who mattered so much is immense and precious.
Fig 60: Engaging with old people for value: Based on the extent of talent or education, and based on the level of health, engaging with old people for value will need to be different.
201. It has been shown in studies that while fluid intelligence (problem solving skills) decreases with age after a peak, crystalline intelligence (skills related to knowledge, experience, vocabulary, analogies) are almost unchanged between young and old.