RAJNI ANAND LUTHRA learns valuable lessons on happiness from the seniors in our community
They are a generation apart, enjoying their twilight years here in Australia in the company of family and friends. Our esteemed 65-plus citizens still play an important, and sometimes indispensable role in our lives, and for the most part, they are content with their lot. So what gives them happiness? It could be little things like helping out around the family home, indulging in hobbies or catching up with friends. Or our savvy seniors spend time surfing the net, keeping up with current affairs or volunteering.
Indeed, the theme of Seniors Week – Live Life! – might as well have been written for the desi seniors we speak with here.
Without doubt, the first thought that comes to mind when you ask seniors what makes them happy, is family. Children, grandchildren and extended family, wherever in the world they may be. Grandparents are an indispensable part of the family unit here, providing care and support for their grandchildren, as their children pursue work and careers.
Charan Sekhon is a classic case. With three adult children all happily married and living within drivable distance, retired life has come alive with family all over again.
“I have six grandchildren – the youngest is only a month old – and I am happy to be involved in their lives since they were born,” she says. Charan helped out with the babies when they were born, while always careful never to impose. When the young mums were ready to go back to work, she looked after the babies for a day a week, making it easier on the new families.
“This involved feeding, putting to sleep, changing, bathing, walking – the whole job, and I loved every minute of it,” she admits enthusiastically, even while supervising bath-time for one of the kids.
“Now my older grandkids want a different kind of attention, such as food they might not get at home, like parathas. I love cooking for them,” claims Charan.
Her husband, who still works, has also begun to chip in. He spends one evening with the older kids at their home helping with homework, especially maths.
“When I go to pick him up, the little ones come running out to greet me – and it makes my day!” says Charan with a smile.
Charan is just one among the many, many grandparents who play an essential role in the lives of their grandchildren which goes beyond just daily chores. Apart from the bonding, they strive to inculcate a better understanding of their past heritage, culture, traditions and even religious beliefs. It’s a wonderful relationship that we hope will blossom and grow.
After family, friends are an integral part of our seniors’ lives. Subhashini Channa migrated here with her young family many years ago, and met a group of happily like-minded families also living in the Hills district. They offered mutual support which blossomed and grew into long-lasting, secure and comfortable friendships. They have experienced births, childhood years, teens, adulthood, marriages, grandchildren, career successes, some misfortunes, health issues – together in a bond of friendship which has endured for over 20 years. What could be more rewarding than that?
“We are very close,” says Subashini. “We continue to be totally involved in each others’ lives. If there is ever a problem, we know they are just a phone call away”.
“A healthy set of friends is a very, very important asset especially in the senior years,” Subhashini, 70, says. “Ultimately, we are all in a similar – not same – boat. Our kids are busy with their own families, and we ourselves are looking at slowing down. We have similar needs now, and find that we keep each other going.”
Sagely, Subhashini concludes, “Our friends are our family.”
When Dr 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 reassess 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 Capetown via Mauritius on the Queen Mary 2. East Africa, South America and China were fascinating in different ways.
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, an adventure not easily forgotten.
Another treasured memory is 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 daylight at that time of the year – it’s going to be lots of fun!”
Now that’s what real retirement is all about!
Work has always defined Saroja Srinivasan. She has been a clinical psychologist for some 45 years now, and continues to work one day a week to this day. “I always knew work would be an important aspect of my life, even before I was married,” she says. But it is the kind of work Saroja does that made her decide to continue working through her senior years. “Being a clinical psychologist has contributed to me being me – or the kind of person I am. It helps me to understand myself better. It has certainly influenced my quality as a mother; it has worked to create some great relationships within my own family,” she admits candidly.
Saroja is now keenly looking at opportunities to work more – 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,” she 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.
Veda Srinivasan took up yoga at 50, practicing it daily. Now at 70, she is so passionate about it that she has become a qualified instructor, conducting regular yoga lessons for RAIN seniors, and spurred by their interest, publishing a booklet that was enthusiastically received. Indian associations all around Sydney now invite her to conduct yoga sessions.
Veda claims yoga can have special benefits for seniors, bringing mind and body into harmony and reducing the particular stresses brought on by age. Her lessons include breathing exercises (pranayam) and some simple movements, rather then strenuous asanas.
Living here has induced seniors to also try out Tai Chi, a Chinese form of exercise to balance the body’s harmony. Both practices however, help seniors in keeping fit in mind and body, and lead to a state of contentment necessary at their time of life.
Dr Gunu Naker has been an avid practitioner of meditation for some 40 years now, incorporating it into his work as an acupuncture GP – he is another ‘active’ senior who continues to work three days a week.
Dr Naker first observed the benefits of meditation in psychological medicine – muscle relaxation techniques were eliminating stress. He built this up into a model which he uses to teach his clients “the value of loving and compassionate thoughts and soft speech in eliminating anger or hate”. The use of “Om” as a meditation aid, he tells non-Indian clients, is not religious – it is merely a primordial sound that will connect you to your spirit and ultimately, to the universe.
For Asha Trivedi, also a meditation practitioner and teacher with the Brahma Kumaris, it is not only important to practice a longish period of such ‘withdrawal’ – she meditates daily from 4 am to 4.45 am – but also to be able to take time off between daily chores for say, five minutes at a time, apne aap to shanti dene ke liye (to give yourself some peace), and to help recharge batteries.
While some meditate, others seem to receive the same type of ‘recharging of batteries’ from prayer.
Mridul Rajeshwar at 71, spends more time than ever before reading the scriptures. “I am currently doing the Ramayan path – reading a designated set of chapters every day at the same time,” she says. She was never overly religious, she claims, but lately she feels drawn to the ancient texts. “I’m seeing the beauty of it all which I seemed to have missed before,” adds Mridul. Her son and daughter-in-law have also noticed a change. “She seems to be getting some solace out of it, and we are happy for her,” they say.
For 84-year-old Minna Batra, scripture reading has further fanned the fire of social activism that has marked her entire life. This firebrand human rights activist may be deeply spiritual, but when she read the scriptures (and she has read most religions, not only her own Sikh texts), she realised that, “Religion has divided more than brought harmony,” and that, “All religions put women down”. Minna is an active member of the Women’s Interfaith Network, and a long-time member of the United Nations Associations of Australia, travelling within Australia and overseas lecturing on human rights issues. She recently concluded active campaigning for constitutional reform, lobbied by the Aboriginal community.
Says Minna, “I also conduct monthly meetings at home on theosophy. I am deeply interested in religions – whether vedic, puranic, ancient Chinese or even Quakers… and the moral and ethical values inherent in them that help foster peace and harmony.”
Reviving an old passion
Young-at-hearts sixty plus Lakshmipathi (Laks) Ayer and seventy plus George Thakur have both rediscovered an old passion – writing.
Laks was Chief Copy Editor of the Financial Express of the Indian Express group of newspapers in Bombay and then Deputy Editor of Gujarat Herald in Ahmedabad in the 1960s. George was the assistant editor of his college newspaper in Lucknow in the late 1950s.
On coming to Australia, both moved away from journalism, as Laks worked as Library Manager of the City of Munno Para in Adelaide for 23 years, and then as a Medical Practice Manager for 10 years. George made inroads into the hospitality industry. Retiring after rewarding careers, both found a resurgence in their interest of their younger years – a passion for words. The pages of Indian Link have offered them an outlet, and they are now an integral part of the contributors’ team. They write largely for the Adelaide and Melbourne editions, reporting on community events in their cities, but their feature articles and works of fiction are appreciated by readers nationwide.
“Indian Link motivated me to rediscover my dwindling passion for writing, in the absence of which my twilight years would be bland,” says gregarious George. “Today, my involvement is with various seniors’ associations, University of the 3rd Age, and Indian Link.”
LP agrees, “This has given me a wonderful outlet for my creative urge – and a good excuse to escape some household chores, to the chagrin of my partner!”
Developing new passions
When Vimla Luthra first arrived in Australia in her early 60s to be close to her children settled here, she realised almost immediately that she would have to adopt a different set of lifeskills than the ones she had in India. The first of these, she told herself, would be to have to learn to drive. Lessons began in earnest, and continued till she had successfully cleared 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 also a much-admired figure in her social circle – which grew 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 – 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 speaking in public on topics of interest. When she tried her hand at writing poetry, she enjoyed the activity so much, and the results were so satisfying, that a book evolved, released last year.
Helping other seniors
Sudha Natarajan started the seniors group RAIN (Resourceful Australian Indian Association) six years ago when she came across an elderly Indian lady travelling with much difficulty to the city, to attend a senior citizens’ meeting. “I had elderly parents at home and thought we should have something closer at hand,” she says. Today Sudha brings succour to a large group of people, has garnered local council support for her activities, and has raised funds and purchased a property solely for the use of Indian seniors. At RAIN, seniors meet not only for social activities, but also to be socially productive: they cook vegetarian meals for Meals on Wheels, have a Carer’s Support Group, two choirs, a prolific vegetable garden, and engage in cultural exchange and fund-raising activities. A ‘Men’s Shed’ for blokes only, was launched this month.
This year, the 60-something Sudha has been named as Ambassador for Seniors Week.
Just like Sudha, others who derive satisfaction from helping their peers are AHIA’s Santram Bajaj, Rakesh Sachdev and Tilak Kalra; Hornsby’s Mira Raheja, and Jay Raman of Sri Om Care group, all of them doing sterling work for our community’s seniors.
Seniors at RAIN have been producing some wonderful herbs and veggies in their permaculture veggie patch, Vrindavan Garden. They designed and built their own garden with the help of experts. The beds are all raised so the seniors don’t have to bend. There’s also a Ganesha statue, safely ensconced inside a fig tree hollow, looking on at all the activity in the garden! Seniors drop by at various times to check on their beloved plants.
Many of our older citizens enjoy gardening as a soothing activity, and their gardens displaying an abundance of flowers, fruit and vegetables are testimony to this passion. From coriander to curry leaves, they explore this special gift of nurturing Nature.
It is good to see seniors indulge in sporting activities. Take Tilak Kalra, who still plays badminton at 72, a sport he first took up as a child. “My club plays on Sunday mornings. We have players of all ages, and from all nationalities and some of us seniors also mentor the young ones,” he says proudly.
Tilak also “likes to sweat it out” at the gym twice a week.
Hardika Hirani took up social golf after retiring. “I played once a week with 4 friends at different courses,” she recalls. “I had to stop briefly for health reasons, and now my girlfriends have moved on – I’m looking for someone else to play with, someone at my own skill level.” Hardika and her husband also play bridge once a week.
Subhash Rugani gave up playing cricket in his early 60s. “I was becoming like India’s national team,” he says by way of explanation. Today at 66, he coaches youngsters in orphanages in India when he visits thrice a year. He also organises table tennis, tennis and volleyball games for the boys, besides teaching them English.
One of the joys of retirement is the simple pleasure of sitting down and reading a book from cover to cover. 74-year-old Ruby Dutta continues to be an avid reader. “I like crime thrillers,” she says. “Lately I have been enjoying Patricia Cornwell. I read Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri recently. Currently I’m reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett.”
Ruby also reads in her native Bengali. “I get magazines from home regularly, just to keep in touch with what’s happening there. I also read Tagore over and over again. Among Bengali novelists I like Suchitra Bhattacharya, and currently I’m reading Samaresh Majumdar, because he will be visiting here shortly!”
Most seniors enjoy planning their meals and making sure their food intake is suitable for their age. Some have to change their diet to suit medical conditions, and even if there are no health issues, they tend to go in for more wholesome food. Subhashini Channa (70) has a new interest in sunflower seeds, walnuts, almonds, linseed and the like. Deep-frying has long been banned in her kitchen; very little oil is used for cooking; daily breakfast is oats; only egg white is consumed, and the daily dinner is grilled fish or chicken with steamed veggies.
Yet Subhashini and her husband Indu are “foodies” – they love eating out, trying various cuisines at restaurants. “We’re looking for a good Greek restaurant these days – suggestions anyone?” she asks, tongue-in-cheek.
Imagine going to TAFE as a student in your 60s, only to get furtive glances from your fellow students? It did not faze Subhashini Channa at all. She even went on to win the ‘Best Student’ award!
The course that Subhashini took, clinical coding, is quite complicated. But such is her yearning for learning, that she not only excelled at it, but also took up a job at Westmead Hospital immediately after.
“My advice to seniors in our community is, be thankful to be in a lucky country like Australia where the opportunities are endless and age is no bar to achieving your goals. Utilize yourself and give to society the wealth of your experience,” says this sprightly lady.
A timeless adage advises that you’re never to old to learn, and this is true with our seniors who take up various courses to learn diverse skills they never knew they had, from art to DIY, from computer skills to gaming. If you think learning is fun, go for it!
Festivals and celebrations
Our seniors love to indulge in festive occasions. Life is worth celebrating, they seem to say! And not just for Holi, Diwali, Eid, Janmashtami, Christmas and New Year, but also for birthdays and anniversaries, the start of the school term, the all-important soccer final (even if you’re in Year 4) and yes, even when Sachin scored that 100th 100. (“I made halwa early this morning,” listener Gargi Shah declared on Indian Link Radio the morning after Sachin finally reached his milestone).
“My grandma simply loves to make an occasion out of everything,” 13-year-old Anita Jayram says.
“Nani only does it ‘cos she’s a happy person,” her mum Simi chides her.
Nani, 69-year-old Kusum Chaddha listens to the exchange and then says nonchalantly, “She never says no to my halwa…”.
Whist drives, dinner and dance events, bingo and tambola – the options are enticing for young-at-heart seniors.
For Cooma Hiramanek, bingo is a welcome distraction from her daily chores and a great way to socialise. “I play twice a week, and have been doing so for the last 15 years,” she says. “I enjoy it very much. We have lots of fun and have made many friends, both Indian and non-Indian. We chat about home, family and ourselves, and come away feeling light and relaxed,” she says.
Many seniors especially women, say doing creative work gives them pleasure, and they revive these sometimes forgotten skills as they get older. Vimla Luthra has knitted all her life, deriving joy in making garments of all forms for family members of all ages. Cooma Hiramanek continues to knit to this day, but mostly for her grandkids. She has even taken orders. “I’m currently making a romper for a friend’s grandchild who will arrive in a few months’ time!” she said happily. Ruby Dutta has been passionate about her creative work with quilting, although she admits ruefully that in the past months her sewing machine has been neglected a bit, as care of the grandkids takes precedence.
And what about the boys? It will be interesting to see what wonderful projects come out of the RAIN group’s recently launched Men’s Shed!
World of TV
Kusum Chaddha loves the soaps on Indian TV. Tell her they are melodramatic, and risk a lecture on how true to life some of them are, particularly the Rajasthan-based, women-oriented ones. And don’t get her started on the costumes and the jewelry that set off trends among the real housewives of Faisalabad. The quiz shows, the talent quests, and now the food shows, are simply incomparable…
81-year-old Raghubir Singh is addicted as well, but to current affairs. He watches Indian news channels religiously, then browses the sites of major Indian newspapers. A soft-spoken man, he is completely animated while discussing major events, specially of a political or sporting nature.
There’s a whole bunch of buzurgs who are part of the Indian Link Radio family. Most listeners are by now familiar with regular senior callers who use the talkback forum frequently. Not a single day goes by when you don’t hear Gargiji, Laxmiji, Vimlaji, Shabbiji – all so familiar that most listeners now recognize them by their voices.
“Indian Link Radio to mera jeevan sathi hai (the radio is my life partner), it lives with me all the time,” says 64-year-old Gargi Shah.
“I call in so frequently that the anchors say, entertainment to aap hain, hum nahin (you are the entertainment, not us)!” Laxmi observes with a laugh.
And do you think they are requesting bhajans or waxing forth about how wonderful life was in India or how badly behaved today’s kids are, and how our sacrosanct traditions are all being forgotten? Oh no! They are analyzing the latest news from India, comparing Julia Gillard (cankles and all) with Tony Abbott (speedos and all), dissecting the latest Bollywood blockbuster, rubbishing the style of some new wannabe singer, reciting their most recent piece of poetry, bringing up a sher that relates to the ongoing discussion, winning the antakshari hands down with their singing, relating a funny incident from their family life, describing the most wonderful interactions with the mainstream…. even telling the odd dirty joke! How cool can our dadas and nanas, dadis and nanis get!
And something else that makes seniors happy
Sex. It’s a topic that’s taboo in genteel company, even in this enlightened and rather outspoken age. And particularly among our seniors, or so we think. However, recent research findings have indicated that seniors who are enjoying sex are happier than those who are not. Evidence to this effect was presented at the Gerontological Society of America late last year. Dr. Adrienne Jackson, assistant professor at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, reported that older married individuals who engage in sexual activity are more likely to be happy with both their lives as well as their marriages.
The study was based on survey responses of 238 married people aged 65 years or older.
It’s true then: there is a relationship between sex and happiness.
Playgrounds for seniors
Seniors are being encouraged to pop over to the playground to give their health and wellness a bit of a boost.
Sydney’s first ‘older people’s playground’ has just opened at Leichhardt, between the Bay Run and Leichhardt swimming pool complex. The park aims to provide more recreational facilities for seniors in the area. With equipment that includes free runners, sit-up benches, push-up bars, a cycle trainer, body flexer, upper body trainer and a rubber soft ball ground, it’s perfect for seniors who would rather be out in the open enjoying healthy exercise.
‘Seniors parks’ or specially designed outdoor playgrounds are already popular in Europe and America, as well as in China and Japan.
But for our enterprising seniors, any park should do to get a bit of that much needed flexibility and movement. So when the slippery dip is finally silent, take your turn and have some fun!