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Pathways to Ageing Gracefully

Portrait of a group of happy Senior men and women standing together in park wearing summer clothes laughing.

About the Author :

Bharat is the Founder and the President of his Strategic, Global Leadership Consulting and Leadership Coaching firm, The Wakhlu Advisory and the co-founder of the not-for-profit, Foundation for Peace and Compassionate Leadership.

Throughout his four decades working with businesses, including with the Tata Group as a Tata Administrative Service (TAS) executive, Bharat has been a strong votary for ethical, value-based enterprises that are led by conscious leaders, and driven by life-affirming processes and systems. In his view, companies can become a force for good, if they choose their leaders carefully, ensuring that their values are aligned with the nurturing aspects of Life itself.

Bharat is a First-Class Mechanical Engineer from BITS, Pilani, a postgraduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, and has Advanced Management Diplomas from INSEAD, France, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. He is an acclaimed Fellow of the American Society for Quality (USA) and the All-India Management Association (AIMA). He is the author of eight books, including a work of fiction, and the writer/director of two training films. Bharat is also fluent in six languages, including German and Kashmiri. To know more, visit bharatwakhlu.com

Image of Bharat Wakhlu

I was still in high school when my dear paternal grandmother, who along with her husband, my grandfather, lived with us, shared something profound with me. She mentioned that as people age, they do so in two different ways.

One group, according to her, aged sweetly, and much like gulkand (which my grandmother would make from the roses in our garden) in paan, would add sweetness to the interactions that such people had with others. Not surprisingly, according to her, it was a pleasure to interact with those who had aged sweetly. Irrespective of where they were, or whom they were with, their presence would spread joy and cheer all around.

On the other hand, there are those who become crabby and bitter with the passage of time. Such people, according to my grandmother, would be perpetually carping and critical of almost everything. Furthermore, they would want everyone in the groups that they might interact with, to focus only on them, and pay heed to none other. Again, not surprisingly, few would want to interact with such irascible people. Over time they would become lonely, and even more dour and sullen.

Image of roses

My grandmother was indeed a wise woman, who had aged beautifully. Her observations on ageing came from her own lived experiences. Though she wasn’t very literate, she was observant and gained many insights from her own life.

Before anyone was to imagine that my grandmother must have had an easy life, let me clarify. Her life had been a tough one, as it was for most women of her generation. She was a pious woman, who was intensely devoted to her loving husband, and that gave her strength. When her husband was young, they were part of a large joint family, with about fifty-odd members (including my grandfather’s father, his second wife, her children, those of his deceased first wife, and many more little children and grandchildren) it was my grandmother – as one of the elder daughters-in-law of the large family- who would manage the large kitchen, that had the “look and feel” of a small factory, day after day.

Serving a large family with a smile on her lips for over twenty-five years or more, however, took a toll on her health. That was when my grandfather decided to move out of the joint family, and along with his wife and three children, decided to establish his own home. Life was definitely better for my grandmother in her new home. However, her sense of service, and her commitment to ensuring that all in the family, and the many visitors who would drop by, were taken good care of, remained steadfast.

My grandmother was an early riser. After her prayers she would spend every moment of her days meditatively doing something or the other that was helpful, to not just those in the family, but even to friends and households in the neighbourhood. She would derive great pleasure from these simple tasks that also kept her occupied. While I was still in school, and if she was free, she would just sit across the table from me even as I was doing my homework. I would greatly enjoy her presence, although we wouldn’t converse very much, while I was concentrating on my work. I also recall that when I was appearing for my matriculation examination, she would make it a point to wake me up at 5:00 a.m. each morning (at my request) so that I could study. As an incentive to ensure that I’d keep awake, she would offer me a bowl of juicy pomegranate and a smouldering kangri to keep me warm.

Image of a pomegranate

Over the years I have reflected deeply on the earthy wisdom that my grandmother shared with me. I too have noticed that people do indeed age differently. Some grow relaxed and playful, others serious and bitter. Why is it that people age so differently?

As I’ve moved to what may be called the “retirement years”, I think I have discovered the main reasons why some people become sour and dispirited with age, while so many others become light-hearted and playful, even as they enter their twilight years.

The key factors responsible for determining the trajectory of ageing, are five-fold. They are:

a) Expressing gratitude for everything in one’s life: 

It’s easy for us to be thankful for the things that we aspire for, and which we may then receive. It’s far more difficult to be grateful for everything that’s happening in our lives, the so-called, “good” and the “not-so-good” events that we encounter. Yet, an openness to all that life offers, and being grateful for every little sliver of goodness that can be determined and found in whatever might occur in one’s life, is a powerful contributor to an abiding sense of positivity, and resilience. Together, both positivity and being resilient, create a wholesome “interiority” that keeps one centred and playful irrespective of what might be happening on the “outside”. Expressing gratitude for everything that transpires, therefore, and doing so frequently, is an important pillar that enables one to be on the right track to age gracefully.

b) Managing Work-expectations: 

There is no denying that work takes up the lion’s share of our time and energy, during our youth and later years. A downside of that intense involvement with work is that we start to think that nothing will change, and that we will rise to the highest echelons of the organisation that we are a part of. This expectation about one’s work – as with most expectations – is bound to be belied, and that can cause immense anguish. It is better to approach one’s work playfully, without attachment, and do one’s best, under all circumstances. It is appropriate to aspire to higher positions and levels. What is not healthy is the process of identifying one’s well-being and happiness with the designations one has, or the trappings of power that one might get accustomed to. This is important because even the best of us – at some time or the other – have to leave whatever roles we might have in our places of work. At such a time, any serious attachment to roles, titles, and the perks of office, can cause pain. Another source of pain is the erroneous expectation that one’s former colleagues (juniors especially) will keep in touch, and report on what’s happening at one’s former workplace. The truth is: that won’t happen. So don’t expect it and make yourself miserable.

c) Being Open to Change and Continuous Learning: 

The one constant in life is that everything in the objective world will change. That is the nature of everyone’s experience. Which is why it helps enormously to expect that things in one’s life will transform – people will move on, positions can be made redundant, perquisites can be curtailed, and new technologies may make some roles obsolete. Knowing this, it helps to be open-minded to not just change, but to continuous, new learning as well. If there are new devices that are flooding the market don’t ever say, “I’m too old to learn how to use it”! A child-like curiosity and an eagerness to learn, are imperative to stay light-hearted and upbeat about all that is happening around you. Furthermore, expressing gratitude for the changes in one’s life (as mentioned in (a) above) that one may encounter, expands one’s mind, and helps us to move away from a victim mindset to that of an explorer – eager to learn and discover new vistas and possibilities.

d) Being Committed to Healthy Relationships and Wholesome Lifestyle Choices: 

We stand to gain enormously in our later years, if we make a life-long commitment to being kind, loving, friendly, respectful, caring, trustworthy, honest and generous in all our relationships. If not all, at least in our most important ones. Healthy relationships, as myriad studies have shown, have a strong positive correlation with one’s long-term well-being and happiness. The more we invest in healthy relationships when we are young, the more we can draw from these (as one would from a bank account that one has invested in) connections later on in life. That gives immense joy and satisfaction. The same applies to developing healthy lifestyle choices. The more we care for our physical, emotional and mental health and well-being when we are young, the better off we are when we get older. Our bodies, when cared for, serve us ably long into our years, and enable us to age without physical or mental impairments.

e) Using One’s Gifts to Serve: 

As individuals, each one of us possesses unique competencies and abilities, that might even “define” us, and which give us satisfaction when used to serve others. These are our gifts: the many “superpowers” that each one of us can use to benefit others, and which simultaneously provide us with a sense of achievement, joy and fulfilment. Just the act of benefiting others through the use of one’s abilities is an immense wellspring of pleasure and serenity. Too often, however, especially when we are young, we tend to ignore these gifts of ours, because they may not all be needed when we are working. But when we are unfettered by the constraints of organisational roles and the job deliverables that we are responsible for, it is these gifts that can be a source of purpose, accomplishment and contentment. Those who use their gifts to benefit others – even if they are not paid for their services – feel happiness and an abiding sense of joy, gratitude and equanimity.

Looking at the above five factors that enable us to be on the pathway to ageing gracefully, it is evident that my grandmother practised every one of them with joyous devotion. She may never have articulated the five factors specifically in her conversations with me, but she lived by them. And so can each one of us.

two seniors walking on a pavement

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