Old age creeps in almost unnoticed. It dawned on me as an amusement. I went to a movie and the ticket price for seniors, 60 years and over, was almost half. I asked for the senior’s price and was required to produce a proof of age. “Don’t l look a senior”? The young woman in the booth shook her head, boosting my ego, and gave me the ticket. With that l became a senior at movie theatres and later in trains, buses and subways, propelled by the seniors’ discount. Yet there was no return, l began to own the tag of senior wherever it suited me.
Growing old is inevitable if one lives past the age of sixty or sixty-five, depends on how you legally define the old. There is a graying of the population all across the world. Life expectancy in Pakistan has increased from 46 years in the 1960s to 66 now. In the middle and upper class households, 70 and 80 years old can commonly be seen. Pakistan’s elderly population is growing fast. It has increased from 4.5 million in 1998 to about 7.8 million in 2011, a 73% increase compared with a 47% increase in the total population.
There are millions who are entering old age without pensions, social security and support. Family life in Pakistan is also changing. Mobility has increased and children choose to live away from the parents. And so the old are increasingly living on their own.
All social classes have been affected by this trend. From the retired civil servants and business executives in Islamabad to elderly farmers in Waziristan, all are facing living by themselves, as their sons and daughters move to the US, Denmark or Karachi. Leaving the elderly alone is not just the reality of what we think is the heartless West, it is also becoming a common fate of the ‘senior citizens in Pakistan as well.
Loss of work and the daily routine due to declining health and/ or compulsory retirement are the gifts that shock you to the reality that yes you have turned old. For the employed, it means a sharp divide, holding a job one day and rendered jobless the next. Businessmen, farmers and craftsmen ease into retirement by shedding little by little the demanding areas of their work. Women give up strenuous domestic chores, gradually yielding to daughters and daughters-in-law. They seldom fully retire and often have some engagement and thereby a relatively easier old age.
The blacksmiths in my neighbourood in the walled city of Lahore, where l grew up, were serenaded home from the Railway Loco and Carriage shops with brass bands on the day of retirement. It was a celebration of their long lives- given short life spans- as well as heralding of the well deserved rest after a years of hard labour. Yet this joy of deliverance seemed to be short lived. Soon they could be seen sitting outside their homes or on corners of Tharas ( platforms projecting out of stores on streets to display wares) idly watching passers-by and on the look-out for any exciting happening. Mohalla (neighbourhood) gossip was their entertainment. The young stayed away from them while maintaining a posture of respect. Boredom was written on their faces and mild waves of irritation festered underneath. Many took to regular prayers. Some also took with relish the daily visit to the butcher and greengrocer, chores now also being shared by women. The challenge for today’s elderly is how to keep alight the flame of interest and engagement without the external structures of jobs, neighbourhoods or extended families? It gets doubly challenging for us in diaspora.
Old age is for rest. This is a common adage. But this business of rest is boring and tiring. In old age, you do things leisurely and slowly but you will be miserable if all you do is rest. You may have an afternoon nap but then you need stimuli, activities and even exercise the rest of a day. I have established an exercise routine in the gym. I get up in the morning with flickers of loneliness and depressive thoughts. The gym is my saviour. I take a book to the treadmill and in half an hour, all those flickers are extinguished. Over the years, the gym has become a bit of Mohalla for me. A tattooed young man comes over to slap hands or the pretty receptionist greets with a charming smile and solicitous comment. Though trivial, such social connections give a good start to a day.
Although family remains the anchor of one’s life as one withdraws from occupational pursuits, its need for the elderly’s involvement has diminished. What little relevance are the experiences of a retired police officer for a son or daughter who is a software engineer in Dubai or a banker in Karachi. Women are better placed in that respect. Their experiences as the nurturer of children are always relevant and their purposefulness as babysitters is always alive. Yet even they have to be restrained about their grandmotherly advice. In a rapidly changing society, relations between generations are being redefined. They are flattening out . The expectations of patriarchal deference
are falling away. This generation of elderly happens to be the first one to face such demands. The Pakistani culture has no models of that yet. Those are being worked out.
Old age is not all pain and loss. It has its joys. Grandchildren lighten up one’s life, without the weight of responsibilities. In old age, cares are not as burdensome, because one is aware of one’s limited time. Also one is not bitten by the competitive spirit; not to the same extent as in the days past. One can enjoy contemplative moments and revel in the present. Music and poetry are all the more engrossing. Prayers are a solace. Now the internet has vastly expanded these possibilities. It is an inexhaustible source of information and interconnections. Long lost friends and relatives can be found. Yet the key for peaceful old age is the readjusting of one’s expectations and cultivation of new interests and purposes.