I can’t remember the first time I heard about Vridhasadanangal (Old Age Homes). But I’m pretty sure my mother was the one to explain the concept to me. With a voice heavy with sadness and a tinge of fear. I don’t remember her exact words, but over the years the message has solidified in my mind.
Don’t be the kind of son that’ll put his parents into an old age home.
I never bothered to question that statement or the thinking behind it. Until a few days ago, when I interviewed Thelma Baker. She’s a 90-year-old woman living in an “old age home” in Canada.
And she’s made me realize….that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
After scheduling the interview, but before I’d talked to Thelma, I mentioned her living situation to my mother. She sighed in distress and wondered if I’d be asking the lady how she ended up there.
I did, and Thelma Baker’s answer surprised my mother.
Before I tell you why, let’s see if your parents gave you the same impression of Vridhasadanangal that mine did.
I was told that old age homes are these sad places where old men and women, grandfathers and grandmothers, spent the remaining years of their lives, shut away from their loved ones. There was always a villain in this story. Normally the heartless or gutless son, who either couldn’t be bothered to deal with his ailing parents or too meek to stand up to the secondary villainess, the cruel daughter-in-law who wanted the house to herself.
There’s a cartoon that has stuck with me, one that my older relatives would no doubt eagerly forward to their children today on WhatsApp as a passive-aggressive reminder. It’s one where a young boy asks the man at the old age home for two more forms when his father gets a form for his grandfather. After all, his own parents would need it soon enough, wouldn’t they? The shocked expressions on the parents’ faces were supposed to be an eye-opener for those who’d grown comfortable with the idea of disposing their parents at an alien institution. A reminder that their sins would come back to haunt them one day.
It was easy enough to understand why my parents felt so strongly about this. They were dedicating their whole lives to ensure that my sisters and I had the education, love, and opportunities required to excel in life. To think that they’d be repaid for all that effort with a room at an old age home was indeed heartbreaking.
But Thelma Baker wasn’t heartbroken.
In fact, she’s the one who chose the “old age home”.
I put those three words in quotation marks because she, like every other Canadian, refers to them as retirement homes. I admit that sounds like a more dignified term, especially in India where those three words have become tainted.
But is it just a change in name, or is there something fundamentally different about the culture as well?
I told Thelma about my mother’s feelings on the subject, about how she felt sorry that a 90-year-old had to live alone in a retirement home. Thelma immediately brushed aside the pity and said that wasn’t how things were done in Canada.
After her husband passed away in 1997, Thelma sold their home and moved into a new house in a different city. But after a decade or so, it became increasingly difficult for her to live there. The house had a man flights of stairs, she explained, and it made moving about much more tiring. Plus, she suffered from acid reflux and required care.
So she sold her house and moved into the retirement home. She pays a monthly rent, just like her younger fellow residents in the city, and leads a fairly normal life. She can leave whenever she wants, and though the food isn’t all that great, her acid reflux problem is under control.
She has three children, and all of them visit often. Up until two years ago, Thelma used to drive herself to doctor’s appointments but then had to give up driving because the doctor said she wasn’t fit enough. Yes, surprisingly, at the age of 88, it seems she’d lost some of the sensations in her feet.
As I listened to this lady tell me about her life, I no longer wondered why she was living in a retirement home. Instead, I thought: Why could she, but so many in Kerala can’t?
I know many of us hate it when opinion writers like me take a western concept, then turn around and ask, “Hey! Why can’t we do this in our naadhu?” It touches a nerve. Sometimes it’s because the question is extremely simplistic and overlooks complicated differences in geography, economy, social structure, and cultural norms. And sometimes, it’s purely because of a reflexive desire to defend traditions and protect ourselves from criticism.
Having said that, let’s still ask that question and try to answer it objectively. It goes without saying, but to preempt repetitive attacks on Instagram I’ll still spell it out: I don’t know the answers, and my only intention is to provoke thought and introspection.
The first reason that comes to mind is the family structure. Or what we’ve been taught in school as “nuclear family” versus “joint family”. The idea that in India people live along with their parents, their siblings, and their offspring. While in the West it’s just the mom, dad and the kids.
That’s not completely true though. Yes, in the west the majority of families are nuclear. It’s often considered an embarrassment if the child remains living in the parents’ house past a certain age (used to be 18, but now anywhere from 20 to 30 goes I guess, and it can go up if the economy goes down.) So in countries like Canada, Thelma Baker would have left home at a young age (and she did).
But here’s the nuance. Even in Kerala, nuclear families are increasingly common. Sure, some still live in a large household, but especially over the past few decades men and women have aimed to move out of their parents’ homes in their 20s or 30s.
Then there is the issue of matrimony. In Kerala, most marriages still culminate with the bride “joining” the groom’s family. There still lingers the notion that the wife is supposed to “take care” of the husband’s mother. I once wondered what would happen if the wife’s mother fell sick and had to be taken care of, to which a friend sarcastically joked, “That’s why mothers want sons, I guess.”
Right now I can’t help but hope that readers spot the word “sarcastically” in the above sentence, and understand that it’s not a view I endorse. My Instagram aversions aside, let’s continue.
Thelma Baker wasn’t expected to care for her husband’s mother or father. When she married, it was with the implicit understanding that she and her husband would be starting a new family.
It was also understood by her that her children wouldn’t be expected to take care of her. I know it’s easy to dismiss this as a cold cultural norm of the West, but it’s far more pragmatic than that. As she raised three children, Thelma earned a living of her own. She and her husband invested in their future, be it in terms of buying property, putting aside some savings, or arranging for a pension from her job. She still took complete care of her children, loved them with all her heart, and helped them succeed.
But she knew she’d always be the one to take care of herself.
Unlike her Malayali counterparts, she did not expect to carry and then be carried.
I’ve wondered if one is truly better than the other. I confess there was a time in my life when I was unemployed and barely able to take care of myself. Back then, it terrified me that one day I’d have to take care of my parents. That fear morphed into resentment. It felt as though I’d been burdened. It made me wish that I’d been born in the West so that I could be free of all familial obligations, unchained from a particular house in a particular city.
Of course, that was foolish thinking. Only later did I realise that I was craving the best in one world while enjoying the best of another. I was dreaming of a future where I wouldn’t have to take care of my parents while living in their home rent-free, unemployed, and well-fed. If my wish had come true, I’d have woken up the next day to a reminder from my dad that I’d need to move out and start working, even if it was in a fast-food joint. I wouldn’t have the luxury of wasting time, waiting for the perfect job in the media industry.
So while I now realize that the Western system that allows Thelma to remain independent her whole life also requires sufficient effort, here’s why I think her story is relevant to Kerala.
I believe we are at a crossroads in our culture. We’re transitioning from the traditional idea, not just of “joint families” but of familial obligations to increased independence. Many of our parents have provided us with the education and opportunities necessary for us to spread our wings and fly all over the world. That means as some of us start our families in different countries, our parents will remain in Kerala. So the question is, what do they do?
The idea of the evil Vridhasadanangal that my mother mentioned to me when I was a kid had very specific geography and economics behind it. The villans in the story were middle-class employees who worked in corporate offices and lived in relative comfort in places like Bangalore, Chennai, and Cochin. In the image that was painted in my mind through newspaper articles and stories on television, the young husband and wife were too busy with their own lives to tolerate the frailties of the parent. So instead of coming home from work and greeting the mother, they decide to push her off to an old age home.
But what’s the narrative of the son or daughter? What happens if the parent is not healthy enough, or willing to travel and stay with them. Doesn’t the parent end up alone at home, isolated from loved ones, vulnerable to health problems?
When I think about my own extended family, there always seems to be a safety net. My grandmother is not alone because several of her children have retired and luckily live in the same part of town.
What happens when the children haven’t retired, and the grandmother is ageing?
Among my relatives, I’ve seen grandparents who have lifelong servants to rely upon. These are the people who cook and clean and buy the medicines they need.
What happens when that system of lifelong servants comes to an end?
In some families, one child remains in Kerala while all the others go abroad. That child is the designated caretaker, the one who makes sure the parents are safe.
What if there is just one child in the family and he/she has to go away?
That’s why I think we need to have a conversation about Old Age Homes. Not to justify them, but to understand how they can be changed to better serve our parents. It’s a sensitive topic that is sure to anger many. We’ve been primed towards the idea that Vridhasadanangal are the depositories of a child’s ungratefulness.
But perhaps the biggest kindness we can offer our parents is an honest conversation about the future. A future that has, not cold, uninviting, old age homes, but rather thoughtfully designed and planned retirement homes that allow them to retain their dignity while providing them with the care and community they deserve.
I think it’s time that we stopped avoiding conversations about Vridhasadanangal and started one about retirement homes. Like the kid in the cartoon put it, it’s not just for our parents’ sake. It’s for our own as well.
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