Ageing pains


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AGEING is both a universal and a natural process. It is a change in demographic structure, a rise in the proportion of the aged population as compared to the overall population that has made them a highly visible section today. The United Nations declared the year 1999 as the International Year for Older Persons; the Indian government announced a National Policy for the Aged. Popular magazines, newspapers, radio and televisions have write-ups and programmes on the aged. The problem has now entered centre stage.

The media, however, has its own limitations and is able to provide, at best, a broad picture and at worst a homogenized perception of the aged. This paper based on fieldwork carried out between 1995-1997 in a north Indian city, attempts to capture the voices of the aged themselves. It is an effort to understand how the aged perceive their own situation.

This paper focuses on the middle class, and within the middle class the retired professional. A great deal of debate has centred around the extended family versus the nuclear family, but little is available on the everyday aspects of family life in modern India. An attempt is therefore made to present the narratives of the aged and to capture the shifts in their daily lives.



This is not to suggest that the problems of the urban middle class aged are universal. I make this point because of the sharp vertical and horizontal divisions that mark Indian society. Though the middle class forms but a small proportion of the overall aged population, it is not only a dominant section, a reference model for society (though not always), but is also a section that has undergone dramatic socio-economic changes in recent decades.

The middle classes have experienced greater social mobility in their own lives as compared to their parents. Their children too have tended to break away from traditionally defined ways. A desire for upward mobility and an emphasis on education has meant, for many, a migration of children to bigger cities, both within and outside the country. They also constitute the first generation retirees who are trying to work out new norms and behaviour patterns. Further, they are characterized by reflexivity, that is, they think about and discuss their problems. This paper confines its attention to the changing nature and quality of relationships in the family and the implications this has for the urban middle class aged.

As Shah1 points out, this is historically a modern and rapidly growing section among whom the institution of joint household though strong in the past is now becoming weak. It has been under the maximum impact of the ideology of individualism. It is articulate and makes its presence felt in the media, the bureaucracy and in the learned professions. It tends to perceive its problems as those of the entire society.

Though many studies have pointed out the role of the family for the elderly population, it was only during my field study that I understood its importance. This is not to deny other important facets related to the issue of ageing, but that family roles and relationships are fundamental factors affecting their daily lives as they provide a meaningful social role and emotional satisfaction after retirement.

In recent decades there has been a general debate about the changes taking place in the institution of the family with sociological literature2 talking about the demise of the extended family, earlier the sole caretaker of the aged, and its replacement by an unstable nuclear family. Of late, this understanding has been criticized by those who argue that the concept of an isolated nuclear family represents more fiction than fact. Without underestimating some changes in structure, it is more important to look at the changes taking place in the function of the family. The first part of the paper looks at the changing nature of lived relationship with children, while the second dwells on the relationship between the spouses.



I first look at the relationship of the retirees with their children and their participation in various aspects of daily living. Most of the retirees in this study lived in a ‘modified extended family’3 where families, though spatially dispersed, score high on contact, interaction and change. Although many of them were positive about the concept of joint living, in practice they preferred the extended modified family. Sussman refers to this desire of the elderly to be close to relatives but not with them as ‘intimacy at a distance’.4 An elderly person expressed this clearly: ‘I feel it is better to have an independent household. I prefer the idea of spending weekends together with the children and have a healthy relationship, rather than live together and have ill-feelings towards each other.’ Yet another stated: ‘I feel it is not the quantity but the quality of time spent together that really matters.’ ‘Living in the joint family is no guarantee that one is taken care of... values have changed, joint living may sound good but it may not be so rosy. Living independently does not mean that the love, affection and care factors have disappeared.’

‘As a result of education, economic independence and changing values there may be conflict between the younger and older generations regarding small things like methods of cooking, preparing the menu between the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. So it is in fact better to maintain a nuclear set.’



There was agreement that it was difficult to get along with the younger generation because of their different ways of thinking and doing things. One response was: ‘Everything said and done... there does exist a generation gap. But if elders keep their mouths closed, the situation remains in control.’ Another one felt that: ‘Parents are expected to make all the adjustments. If we stay together we are taken for granted, as if we don’t have our own viewpoints.’



The frequency of visits was higher during the festival seasons and in case of an emergency. Though mutual, the retirees clearly preferred that their children visit them rather than the other way round. They also wanted the frequency of visits to increase, though many of the children have settled abroad.

For some, their children’s achievement was a source of pride: ‘My son is brilliant. Since childhood he was of an independent nature. He got selected in one of the topmost universities in the States, did his Masters in business administration from there and is now placed highly... we feel proud of him. But at times we do miss him... he is too busy to visit us regularly. It has been almost six years since he last visited India. Though we do visit him once a year, he gets very little time to spend with us.’ Another one was despondent: ‘What can the younger generation achieve in this country?’ But for another: ‘My daughter is a very successful doctor in the US. Why should I worry?’

However, they admitted to feeling lonely and sad because the children were so far away and wished that they stayed somewhere nearby. Clearly a desire for proximity, fear of actual living together and the safety of being able to boast about them at a distance was all present simultaneously.

Another comment reads as: ‘Both my son and daughter study abroad. Whenever my daughter or daughter-in-law are expecting we are sent the tickets beforehand. Both of us go for a time period after which their in-laws go for another six months... the baby-sitters are very expensive and also where can one get homely care by paying.’ Some felt that: ‘You take care, give your time, energy, love. After all they are your children. Still you can hear comments of dissatisfaction. It really hurts. But what to do... after all we are parents.’

When quizzed about the degree of agreement on various issues, most retirees felt that prior to retirement their children tended to either agree with them or preferred to keep silent in the face of disagreement. But after retirement the attitude changed with discussions and conversations with children usually resulting in heated arguments. It was the aged who tended to compromise even on small issues like choice of TV channels, what to eat for lunch or dinner. This compromise, however, was not without resentment: ‘Just because one is old, one is expected to compromise on every small issue. My wife argues that see you are mature, old, he is a child and so on... as if once you grow old you are expected to lose interest, act as a saint.’



Apart from the frequency of visits and quality of conversation, it is also important to understand the process of decision making and the advisory role in the family. Before retirement it was solely the prerogative of the bread winner but after retirement it is more a matter between son and wife and does not extend to them. The young do not consult their parents before deciding on most matters. Some of the responses made this clear: ‘They don’t even bother to discuss with us, what are you talking about taking decisions. Husband and wife decide amongst themselves and only inform us of their decision.’

Another felt: ‘They think they are more rational, smart and well educated and hence can think for themselves. I feel that as soon as a person retires he should take a back seat and accept a passive role if he wants to maintain even a little bit of respect.’



Others expressed their limited role in decision making: ‘No, we don’t decide on anything except for my wife and myself. My children come and inform us about their choice and we passively agree. After all, what is the use of showing annoyance except for troubling yourself and disturbing the peace within the family.’ Most of them reported giving advice only when asked to since most of the time their concerns were not taken seriously. ‘See, you put in so much of effort and pain to think about them, after all they are children. But what you get in return is humiliation. They turn a deaf ear and act as if they know the ins and outs of everything and need no advice.’ ‘I advice only when it is specially sought for, otherwise they are free to do what they think is right.’ Another felt that: Once your children become economically independent, get married, have children, you should yourself withdraw from the role of advising and directing, if you want the respect to remain intact.’ ‘They think they are the best judge and we are outdated.’

An important observation to emerge from the interviews was that married daughters are increasingly playing an important role in taking care of their old parents. In fact, parents are happy to accept the help of daughters rather than sons: ‘Earlier we stayed alone, but recently my daughter and her family has shifted to the town. In fact, my daughter forced her husband to get a transfer so that she could be near us. From that time onwards she has taken over all my responsibilities. Though she stays almost 10 kms away from the house, she drops in every other day with something she has cooked. My married son stays close by, but he hardly gets time to visit us. Even when he does, he is more like a guest. The only help he can think of extending is financial.’

They also stressed the point that daughters not only provide care willingly, but also receive every form of help from parents as and when required. As Jerrome suggests, besides giving help daughters also receive greater help than the sons, at least in areas of childcare – the act of caring means caring about as well as caring for.5 It seems that the moral responsibility, out of sheer affection and love, falls more on the daughters than on sons, which is also acceptable to the parents.



Another important observation to emerge was that the elderly did not like the idea of accepting financial help from children. Many of them saw self support as important for maintaining self-respect. ‘By God’s grace, even after retirement, my economic position is all right. Even now I have the capacity to help my children in times of need. I cannot imagine taking financial help from them at any point of time. What will be my position in the family as a dependant person? I could not take that kind of humiliation.’

When unwell the elders expect help from children, especially daughters, only to the extent that it does not become a burden on them. ‘We take care of each other... at times children do come over, but one cannot expect them to disrupt their daily routine and take care permanently.’ Those with children staying in the same city had a more active give and take relationship. However, nearly all stressed that it was unimportant for children to provide material help, but that they ought to show affection, love, keep in touch and give due respect. ‘Believe me, although retirement has resulted in reduced income, it is sufficient for the two of us – me and my wife. I believe that one should cut ones coat according to the available cloth… the question of help from children does not arise. After all, it is the duty of parents to look after their children, at least financially. If there is anything that I expect from them, it is respect and care.’



For an overall understanding of family life, the relationship of the retirees with their spouse becomes important. The family in the West focuses on the husband-wife relationship, i.e. conjugal ties, while in Indian society family means strong ties with children. However, this study points towards a reaffirmation of spouse ties, especially after retirement – a shift from consanguineous to conjugal ties. Though most of the spouses were non-working, but even for those who did work, retirement did not pose a problem as they continued with the role of homemakers. But for almost all women the retirement of husbands was certainly seen as a period of crisis and transition. ‘No matter how positively one thinks, it is definitely a period of transition. All of a sudden you are left with so much of free time and nothing concrete to do.’

Many respondents pointed to the problem of declining standards of living and to reduced income: ‘Most of those retired are still capable of working. A person who has enjoyed power, prestige, status and comfort both at the workplace and home, is suddenly required to adjust to the loss in income, living standard... where does one get a full-time paid servant these days? Even they seem to be interested in government jobs.

It was also interesting to see how elderly couples adjust their lives and routines after retirement. In most cases a loosening of the rigid definition of ‘male work’ and ‘female work’ was noticed. In general the husbands increased their participation in household activities, especially male oriented work like payment of bills, buying grocery and so on. Although most spouses appreciated the shouldering of household responsibilities by husbands, an overindulgence in the domestic space was often unwelcome. ‘I dislike the interference in my domestic chores, especially comments like the room is not properly dusted, what should be cooked and so on. After all, I have grown old doing these things. I know my work well. The problem is that there is plenty of free time and nothing really to be done, no regular routine of going to the office, so most of the time he tries to interfere in my affairs. What does he know of buying vegetables, what to cook and how to cook? But he does not hesitate in giving directions and analyzing critically. This becomes more of a burden.’



Another responded: ‘When it comes to kitchen work, especially cooking, I prefer doing it on my own.’ Not only this, the usual answer to the question, What do you do in your free time was, ‘I don’t get even a minute to sit and take rest... a woman’s work never finishes... at times even the whole day seems less.’

Most of the spouses observed changes in their husbands’ behaviour after retirement, although no pattern was noticed. Some of the responses were: ‘He has become so critical of every small detail – be it family, children, cooking or politics.’ ‘He has become more helpful, giving extra time to household chores. But then I feel very bad seeing him do this work. In his service years, he never even picked up a thing, everything was ready.’ ‘Earlier he used to be so calm and quiet and understanding but now it is a different story. He gets irritated so easily, he has become very short-tempered.’



Though the wives occasionally made negative comments about their husbands’ behaviour, they could not tolerate any criticism or disrespect from their children. ‘Yes, I understand that at times he gets irritated with the children. I try to pacify him but I do not like my children answering back. So what if he has retired, we are old. Could we ever think of behaving like this with our parents?’ ‘I do not like my children interfering in our matters. Even if he says something which sounds out of place, it is for me to correct but certainly not my children. I am not ready for any disrespect shown to my husband.’

In case of illness the main care-giving function was performed by spouses. For most of them help is usually mutual between husband and wife. Often they do not ask for help unless compelled. An elderly woman commented: ‘My husband usually takes care of me when I fall sick. You know, he gets nervous even if I catch a bit of a cold and cough or temperature. It is only when our sickness requires prolonged care that we bother our children. Normally we do not ask for help. Everybody, including our children, has their own families, their own lives. Why trouble them unnecessarily.’

Little direct exchange of help was observed except by spouses, and children in case of an emergency. Though both sexes showed an adjustment to the post retirement years, women were better adjusted than men, and often tended to become more dependent on their wives, especially emotionally, for all their needs. It was also interesting to notice how both partners tended to become more attached and devoted to each other. ‘I cannot imagine life without him. We have had our share of fights, but now we are so dependent on each other. I know children are there to take care of us but I guess nobody can give the company and contentment that a spouse can, especially in old age.’ ‘I think we are the best of companions, sharing every aspect of life in its minute details. I wonder what will happen to him when I am not around.’

One of the retirees commented: ‘You won’t believe it, retirement has brought us closer. Earlier we were too busy with work and worrying about the children. Now that all of them are settled, we two are by ourselves to share every sorrow and happiness together.’



The devotion and love expressed for each other in old age was incredible, possibly because of stability in life, companionship over the years, and shared experiences. As is well established, during child rearing years the marriage relationship is subordinate to the demands of children, and husband-wife tend to grow apart.6 The frequency of marital interaction reportedly increases in post parental years, particularly after retirement.

In old age, companionship and the freedom to express one’s feelings without being judged becomes the most satisfying aspect of married life. This paper highlights the voices of the aged in the hope that this ethnographic material may help in providing important clues to understanding the life of the aged.




1. A.M. Shah, The Family in India: Critical Essays, Orient Longman, New Delhi, 1998, pp. 76-77.

2. E.W. Burgers and H.J. Locke, The Family, American Book, New York, 1945; T. Parsons, The Social Structure of the Family, in R.N. Anshan (ed), The Family: Its Function and Destiny, Harper, New York, 1959; A. Ross, The Hindu Family in its Urban Setting, Oxford University Press, Toronto, 1961.

3. A.C. Kerckhoff, Nuclear and Extended Family Relationships: Normative and Behaviour Analysis, in E. Shanas and G. Streib (eds), Social Structure and Family: Generational Relations, Prentice Hall, New Jersey, pp.93-112.

4. M.B. Sussman, The Family Life of Old People, in R.H. Binstock and E. Shanas (eds), Handbook of Ageing and Social Sciences, Van Nostrad Reinhold Co., New York, 1976, p. 222.

5. D. Jerrome, Intimate Relationship, in J. Bond and P. Coleman (eds), Ageing in Society: An Introduction to Social Gerontology, Sage, London, 1990, pp. 185-195.

6. cf M.F. Lowenthal and B. Robinson, Social Networks and Isolation, in R.H. Binstock and E. Shanas (eds), Handbook of Ageing and Social Sciences, Van Nostrad Reinhold Co., New York, 1976, p. 434.