Thursday, April 24, 2008

A different autumn

He's there at the park bench everyday even before the first of the morning walkers arrive. And will be there till the last leaves. Most of us who come for our morning walk in the park know that he lives in the palatial bungalow across the park. Three children settled abroad and apparently doing very well, a retinue of servants at his beck and call, a huge house at his disposal! What else would a man need in his old age, I've often mused. It was months before I gave a smile in his direction, and a few more weeks before I stopped to talk. He said I reminded him of his daughter he had not seen for the past so many years. It has been years since his children and family came down for a visit though they telephone regularly. The longing in his eyes and the sadness in his voice as he spoke of his children and grandchildren settled so far away from him _ for the first time _ made me realise what elderly persons really need at the autumn of their life.

Their wants are not just about material comforts or communication. It is more about companionship and compassion. They are given the space but not our time, they are provided the blankets but not the warmth, and the love on offer is the occasional high rather than the steady loving care that they require.

Somewhere along the fast paced life, memories of those stable fingers which offered the steadying effect as one took the first tentative steps, of those unfaltering hands that held one's bicycle steady on the seemingly endless rounds before one was confident of cycling alone, has faded. The aroma of those lovingly prepared dishes has waned and that lap into which tears were shed the first time one was ditched by the best friend doesn't look so inviting now that newer and more fascinating pleasures beckon one. If there is one relationship which we take for granted it is the one we share with our elderly parents.

And even when elderly parents are staying with the children, things may not necessarily be perfect. Though extreme cases of old parents being turned out of the houses are rare, in the urban double income families it is quite common to come across mothers who are relegated to the status of unpaid maids and baby-sitters. I've been unfortunate enough to witness instances where old parents were so evidently unwelcome in the drawing rooms whenever there were guests. Their opinions are perceived to be out of sync, their counsel taken to be dated, the stories of the past they spell out have nothing to offer except rings of boredom.

But then, can even those of us who cannot be slotted into the above categories claim a clean chit? I guess not, for how many of us consider our parents when we talk about quality time with family? We take into consideration the emotional needs of our spouses and children, but the emotional needs of our parents are easily overlooked. It is not that we don't care; we love them, but then we also take them so much for granted that it hardly occurs to us that our parents too have such needs. Francis Bacon may have had a point when he said, "The joys of parents are secret, and so are their grief and fears." I think it is this silence, this lack of voluble protestations that probably make us easily overlook their anxieties and needs.

They may not have been the super parents we wished they were. But they were always there stoically beside us whenever we needed them no matter what. Now, when they are old and crippled, slow and lonely, it is the time for giving back and it is our time that we can give back.

May be it is best to remember that a few years down the line we'll be where they stand now, craving for the company of the ever-busy children and grandchildren, waiting for a loving hug and a few loving words. The time we give back to our parents now can set the tone for the time we can get back then.

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