RAJNI ANAND LUTHRA gets hot tips on ageing during NSW Seniors Week
“Working people frequently ask retired people what they do to make their days interesting. Well, for example, the other day, Mary my wife and I went into town and visited a shop. When we came out, there was a cop writing out a parking ticket. We went up to him and I said, ‘Come on, man, how about giving a senior citizen a break?’ He ignored us and continued writing the ticket. I called him a mildly rude word. He glared at me and started writing another ticket for having worn-out tires. So Mary called him something stronger. He finished the second ticket and put it on the windshield with the first. Then he started writing more tickets. This went on for about 20 minutes. The more we abused him, the more tickets he wrote. Just then our bus arrived, and we got on it and went home. We try to have a little fun each day now that we’re retired!”
Retirement is a time for you to finally do what you always wanted to do – and the best part? You never have to wear a suit or set that alarm clock again! You get greater freedom to make your dreams of relaxation a reality: reading, playing golf, travelling, annoying police officers… You have no more deadlines or professional obligations.
Retirement can be lots of fun, but there are also plenty of things to be wary of. That is, if you want to make this time a happy and comfortable one, as well as rewarding. You’ve spent a greater part of your life working, and handling life’s many stresses, so this is the time you’ve been waiting for. You will however, need to take good care of your health, and plan your finances carefully to ensure that you are comfortably off. You need to become accustomed to having a less stressful life, which in itself can be a challenge. Especially to someone who has worked beyond capacity for many years. We plan for every major event in life – exams, university, job interviews, weddings, babies, milestone celebrations, so why not plan for retirement?
We asked seniors from Australia’s Indian community to share their ideas on how to enjoy a happy and fulfilled retirement. Here are their thoughts:
Be accepting of physical downturns
One of the first signs of old age is a decline in physical well-being, even if it’s gradual. It’s amazing how blind we can all be to our own physical decline, even though we know fully well it is a natural process. If you’re in your mid-40s and can’t believe your eyes when the restaurant menu seems blurry, or when you begin to squint at a needle while threading it, you’ll understand why your 80-something family member resists the walking stick, or the 90-something neighbour insists on driving themselves about.
“As you enter your senior years, know your strengths and weaknesses very minutely”, says Chaman Anand, a retired academic based in Chandigarh, India. “Health issues will be unwelcome visitors, and you must be able to manage them effectively. High BP and diabetes are common ailments in my age group. In this case you should be able to look after yourself, monitor your own medication, and keep up regular doctors’ checks. You will also need to test regularly for visual and hearing impairments, and in later years, perhaps for cognitive decline too”.
Sort out your finances
Retirement brings with it a decrease in income, and although your living expenses are somewhat reduced, things like medical expenses can increase. Plan for your retirement by building up that proverbial nest egg. Consult with a financial planner if you have to, and make your money work for you in the most efficient way possible. And remember, what works for your best friend might not necessarily work for you. For Sydney-based Yash Bhasin, this was a key factor in the lead up to his retirement nearly 17 years ago. “I am proud to say I am financially independent, having funded my own retirement entirely”, the retired academic says. “In my working years I was quite clear about financial goals for my wife and I in our later years, and luckily for us, things have worked out beautifully”.
The early years in retirement can be a ‘honeymoon’ phase in which you revel in the absence of structure in your daily life. This can be especially true if you were a workaholic or had a jet-setting work life that saw a lot of travel. “But it can be very difficult to sit idle too, after some time”, Chaman Anand reveals. “One has to find some activity to keep busy, depending on one’s tastes, capabilities and interest”. Don’t simply retire from something. Have something to retire to. Think of the activities you used to enjoy, that you’ve had to give up due to work and family commitments. Pick them up from where you left off.
Or instead, dive into a completely new one at a local club, group, church or temple. Yash Bhasin tried gardening like many other retirees, but found he much preferred social work, especially with Indian seniors in Sydney. KK Gupta, who retired as head of Air India Australasia, has been active at Sydney’s Minto Mandir.
He admits that he isn’t motivated by religious reasons, but derives great satisfaction in heading the administrative section there. Melbourne-based George Thakur has become a regular at the University of the Third Age. His appetite for learning has found the perfect outlet here.
“My wife Rose and I may have retired, but we still have our lives ahead of us!” George says, “We still have lots of things to accomplish, dreams to fulfil. We want to make the best of every moment. Adopt this attitude in your senior life, and it will be a happier time.” It is clear these wise people look on retirement as a new beginning, with new opportunities and experiences. Plan a weekly schedule of activity, and fill it with as much activity as you can handle comfortably, with plenty of time for rest in between. Options include the theatre, the library, sport, eating out, the list is endless. Us time-poor, middle-aged parents of teenagers can get incredibly jealous!
Find like-minded people
It is essential to have a social circle of friends in order to prevent social isolation, as well as to keep depression from slipping in. Companionship is important at this stage of life, so try to make friends and build up a social circle. Meeting others at a hobby or community club, or just in the neighbourhood, gives you a chance to interact with other people in your situation and see how they are handling this stage of life, while learning from each other in the process.
Yash Bhasin, in his work with the senior community, has seen the problem from close quarters. “Many seniors have come here in their later years to be close to their kids”, he reveals. “Their biggest problem in this foreign country is the lack of a social support network. At our Senior Citizens Forum, that is the problem we are looking to solve for them”. 73-year-old Mira Mehra and her 75-year-old husband Arvind have been lucky to have found a group of friends in Melbourne and are enjoying a thriving social life. “We are a group of ten couples that meet regularly”, Mira says. “We go for shows and movies and cultural events, or meet at home”. While new technology may be worrisome, those seniors that have caught on and have not found the internet too daunting, have found much pleasure from social networking sites. As well as Skyping family and old friends, which are both great ways of keeping in touch.
Take care of your body
Tilak Kalra, also of the Senior Citizens Forum, has this advice, “Do some moderate exercise. Walking is very good; and try the gym if there is one close to you that has a seniors program. But always remember to be guided by your body – listen to your body. The idea is to keep mobile and of course, to maintain a healthy body weight” .
As you get older, the feet are not as agile as you imagine them to be. The fat pads on the soles compress, and fatigue and pain become common. So wear heavy, supportive shoes, thick socks, and knee supports if you need them. Kalra also stresses the need to watch your diet and not eat meals too late in the night. Also, remember to drink plenty of water, (at least 2 litres a day), clear the bowels regularly, and get good sleep. Regarding sleep, he advises certain positions that are beneficial, such as on the side and with knees together (leg over leg could twist your back). He has some tried-and-tested methods to help difficulties with sleeping, such as counting in 3’s or backwards from a thousand, which he claims have an “80% success rate”. Plus of course, hit the sack early, and wake early.
Other suggestions are to:
- Learn effective techniques for reducing stress, such as relaxation exercises or breathing techniques
- Take in some sunlight, natural light and fresh air, on a daily basis
- Eat smaller portions
- Include ‘feel good’ foods in your diet such as tofu, roasted pumpkin seeds, gluten flour, sesame seeds, almonds, walnuts, etc.
- Increase intake of fresh vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fruit, seeds and nuts, to get antioxidants and fibre, and to clean your arteries, enabling a rich blood supply to the brain
- Consume alcohol in moderation
Retirement can be a great time to reconnect with your spouse. You have spent so much time providing for and/or nurturing your family, that you have probably neglected your relationship. But you are a couple again, now that the kids have flown the coup and are busy with their own lives.
And yet, believe it or not, it is not always so romantic. ‘A retired husband is often a wife’s full-time job’, is an old, and possibly true saying. You may not be used to spending so much time together anymore, or have unresolved issues from way back, or you simply may not have nurtured any shared activities. In fact, in the western world, the highest rate of divorce is in the over-50 age bracket. This may be a time of self-discovery for yourselves as individuals. And remember to be ready for a share of compromise. Yash Bhasin speaks strongly of the need to develop common interests from early on. “Start developing them now so you can have something to do with each other in your senior years”, he says.
Mira Mehra goes a step further. “Inculcate a separate hobby as well as a shared interest”, she advises. “You need to give each other space too, you know! For example, I like to paint, while my husband Arvind likes to garden. But together, we like to entertain and socialise. And yes we have our share of arguments, just like you probably, but we take care of each other and enjoy our time together – who knows how much more of it we have”!
There is also the situation that if one partner is sick, there could be added pressure on the relationship, and domestic responsibilities will have to be rejigged. If you are a caregiver, remember to take time out for yourself. Visit friends or go for a walk on your own. Don’t hesitate to ask for help from family members or get paid help if you can afford it.
It is also equally important to stay in touch with other members from your immediate family, and as much as is possible, with those in the extended clan. Swedesh and Chaman Anand live away from their children and grandchildren, but try to take an interest and participate in matters which are important to their nearest and dearest. “We try to keep track of school events and ask after the things which interest the young ones”, they say.
Mira and Arvind Mehra are more involved, because they live in the same city, although not with the grandkids. “We help in whatever way we can: we are still picking up and dropping off from school, Saturday sport, and various weekday activities”, Mira reveals. “Of course it is getting harder, and there is no demand from our kids, but we will continue to help till we can”. But the Anands and the Mehras are both cautious to not be too dependent on their children, and instead, try to be as self-reliant as possible. “Don’t expect that your kids will look after you”, Mira warns. “Even though they may sincerely want to, they might have their own pressures and demands”.
Chaman Anand agrees saying, “There is a greater need in your senior years to lean on your partner, and there must be mutual caring and support”. Nurture both relationships, with your partner and with your kids and grandkids, by remembering good times from the past, and by acknowledging the unique talents and traits that make them special. Express your appreciation for their love and support. Spend time doing activities that will bring you closer.
Be open to new experiences
As the world around you becomes more and more complex, you might realise that learning new skills is essential not merely just to keep up, but because the old methods are just not used any more. Emails are a case in point. New technology always makes seniors uncomfortable. But give it a go, don’t react negatively to suggestions from others trying to help, and don’t reject their ideas altogether. And for sure, don’t be afraid to ask for help. You may wonder why you didn’t try the new activity sooner!
When Vimla Luthra first arrived in Australia in her early 60s to be close to her children, after they settled here, she realised almost immediately that she would have to adopt a different set of life skills than the ones she had in India. The first of these, she told herself, would be to learn to drive. Lessons began in earnest, and continued until she had successfully passed her driving test. With the purchase of her first car at 65, not only was she well on her way to an independent lifestyle, but she also became a much-admired figure in her social circle. A circle which grows larger and larger with every passing year. Learning a new skill such as driving is not easy at a senior age, but it did not daunt Vimla. And her dogged determination in mastering this skill improved the quality of her life. Doctors’ visits, library trips, catching up with friends, and going to weekend events became independent activities, and this opened up a world of opportunities.
Interestingly, this mind-set transferred to other avenues as well, and soon Vimla was taking on many new challenges, such as trying out a musical instrument, and speaking in public on topics of interest. When she tried her hand at writing poetry, she enjoyed the activity so much, that she wrote a book in 2011.
Volunteer: Help others and help yourself
In the developed world, seniors are being encouraged to volunteer in the community, not only as a means of helping others, but also to help themselves. Scientific research has proved that involving yourself in voluntary activities or charitable work actually staves off depression. There are other mental health benefits too: MRI tests have proved that volunteering actually gives you a ‘helper’s high’. It helps you feel worthwhile, and so is often called ‘helper therapy’.
Now that you are free from the responsibilities of work and family, devote some time to charitable causes. Find an activity for which you can volunteer. Meals on Wheels maybe? Teaching underprivileged children? Teaching a community class based on your hobby? Leading a bush-walking group? Becoming a museum guide? Coaching a soccer team? Volunteering with your religious group? Mentoring youth in your family or in your community? The list again, is endless. Yash Bhasin and Tilak Kalra are but two seniors in our own community, who through their volunteer work over the past twenty-odd years, are helping to bring relief to an increasingly growing number of seniors.
When Sydney-based medical practitioner Rakesh Sachdev decided to ‘semi-retire’ in 2002, the group Young Active Retirees (YAR) was born. His great idea was to travel around the world in the company of close friends. “We felt we had reached a stage in our lives where we had fulfilled most of our family commitments and now had a well earned opportunity to broaden our life experiences”, he says.
“Some advantages of travelling in senior years are visiting famous landmarks; meeting a range of people and getting to know their cultures and traditions; gaining a perspective in one’s own life and reassessing one’s values; going back to one’s roots, and gaining a new frame of reference for understanding the world”, adds Rakesh. Rakesh and Sarita Sachdev and their friends have now travelled to every continent of the world, even Antarctica. “We boarded a cruise ship from Brazil, passed through Falkland Islands, went around the Antarctic Peninsula, touched Ushuaia (southernmost city in the world), and finished in Chile”, he recounts enthusiastically.
They have gone on cruises in Alaska, and from Sydney to Cape Town via Mauritius on the Queen Mary 2. East Africa, South America and China were fascinating in different ways. But on their trip to Lake Mansarvor and Mt Kailash they ran medical clinics in Tibet. Travelling in Europe, they were caught up in the bomb blast in Madrid, and missed connecting flights, which was an adventure not easily forgotten. Another treasured memory was a trip to Potsdam, where in 1945 the Heads of State of the war coalition (Josef Stalin, Harry Truman and Winston Churchill) met to decide on a deal about defeated Germany. But very special to Rakesh is a trip to Pakistan. “I wanted to trace my roots, and visited my birthplace. I had the privilege of visiting Nankana Sahib and Panja Sahib gurudwaras, and the Khyber Pass with an Army escort”, he says. Rakesh and his band of merry travellers will visit the Arctic in August. “We are taking a cruise around Spitzberg and going sightseeing in Norway and Finland. We are expecting 23 hours of daylight at that time of the year – it’s going to be lots of fun”! he says enthusiastically. Now that’s what real retirement is all about!
Continuing to be involved with work is another option to spend your retirement optimally. Mira Mehra shows no sign of stopping at 73, working five days a week at her Centrelink job. Sydney’s Saroja Srinivasan has worked as a clinical psychologist for over 45 years. “Work has always defined my life”, she says. Saroja is now keenly looking at opportunities to increase her work schedule – as part of the NSW Mental Health Review Tribunal, helping with policy and service provision issues. Hardika Hirani gave up full time work way back in 2001. But since then she has continued to work two days a week, teaching book-keeping and MYOB at Padstow TAFE. “I do it because I love it”, Hardika says. “I’m still interested in it and so I enjoy it. It keeps me mentally and physically active. I’m very happy with the arrangement, and have every intention to continue as long as I can”.
Keep your sense of humour
There can be trying times in the senior years. A sense of humour can help in small ways to counter these. Laughing at your own troubles or at your ‘senior moments’ can help alleviate the pressure. Smile more. Especially when you’re feeling down. Smiles, even forced smiles apparently, create positive chemical changes in the brain and make us feel good. Rent comedy movies regularly and watch the comedy shows on TV. Listen to people tell jokes and tell one or two of your own. Rediscovering your sense of humour will help your well-being to improve.
It is common knowledge that doing crossword puzzles keeps your brain agile in the older years. You need to exercise the brain, in the same way that going to the gym exercises the body. But new findings show that dance has the exact same benefits as doing a crossword puzzle. Dancing not only increases oxygen to the brain, it also releases a protein that strengthens cells and neurons. The coordinated movements in dance are also said to create the same kind of cerebral activity involved in learning, keeping the brain nimble and active. Mira and Arvind Mehra are great fans of dancing and don’t let the slightest opportunity pass by. So, turn on that music. The best thing is, you’re probably not even self-conscious any more!
Senior years are a good time to clear the air. Get back in touch with all the people at work or in your family with whom you may have had misunderstandings. Confront your emotions, and sort things out. Don’t leave room for past regrets. Clear the slate and rekindle friendships.
A time to find yourself
The penultimate stage in our life is the time when we realise our true self. Perth senior Patrick D’Mello has these profound words to share, “While in our twenties we might have thought of ourselves as ‘unique’ and ‘one of a kind’. As we grow older we come to accept that we are really just like every body else. Our sense of uniqueness gradually diminishes as our bodies give way, and as we realise that the organisation we devoted our lives to at work, has continued on quite all right without us. At my age, I am reassessing my life and finding my purpose in this world. Perhaps this is the aim of my life, or my duty at this stage of life, just as the sages in ancient India said all those centuries ago. Yes, it is a kind of spiritual awakening”, he says.
Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, who did vastly seminal work in this area of study, came to a similar conclusion. His theory of human development says that our personality develops in eight stages, from infancy, well into our old age. At each stage, a particular conflict has to be resolved successfully for a specific aspect of personality to develop, and before we move on to the next stage. In our final stage of development this conflict is to be able to ‘maintain ego integrity’ (holding on to one’s sense of wholeness), while ‘avoiding despair’ (fearing there is too little time to begin a new life course). The successful negotiation of this conflict results in ‘wisdom’, which is defined as ‘accepting without major regrets the life that one has lived, as well as the inescapability of the end of life’.
So enjoy being a senior, with the right attitude it could well be the best time of your life.