Does one tire of living, I often ask myself. I have witnessed how fondly my 80-year old grandmother would relish her food. And how eager she was about good food. A common thread across many elders I have known, is the fondness for food. And then the attachment for tiny material objects; the penchant for hoarding; the adamance about where they would live; the steadfastness for daily routines; the eagerness for information, bordering on gossip and so many such little quirks. It would seem to me that people don’t tire of their desires. Not easily.
What if I also became one such elder? Craving chocolate ice cream at midnight and unwilling to sleep without my favourite pillow? How would I manage to pull through a day without meeting people or having conversations? How would I stay in a house without a balcony that looks into the sky? Or without a bird that would chirp in the morning? Or flowers and greens that fill my yard? Oh, that list is so long. Would not being able to shorten it make my old age unbearable? What would happen and how would those years be?
I nurture a romantic notion. Of a tiny house in a small village. With a large yard full of trees. And a cow in the yard; a tom cat prowling about and a dog at my feet. I imagine a house in which anyone who wants to come in is welcome. To stay, to eat, to talk and to lead a simple life of just food, books, music and the charm of the vast outdoors. A house without locks as it has no hoards. And a life telling stories to little children. Teaching them some math and literature. And feeding them all the milk, yoghurt and ghee that the cows give. Or is that still too long a list of desires with too many specifications?
I always argue that old age must involve abdication. Of most worldly possessions and pleasures. But I do not see examples of that happening around me. I do not see even the earlier generation giving up worldly possessions. I mostly see fear, secrecy, bitterness, complaint, and many negative emotions that hinge on expectations and disappointments. Then I see stinging loneliness. Even those who have resigned to a quiet life, seem burdened by the lacklustre everyday existence. My plans are dismissed as too surreal when cross-checked against these realities. So here is my list of questions about old age. Consider them as points to ponder.
First, is there a point where one stops bothering about income and expense? Will these questions nag one to death? After retirement, the first 10 years may be spent on trying to still earn an income; the next 10 may be spent on ensuring expenses are in line. What after that? Wouldn’t there be a situation of lesser expense? Would one not feel old enough to spend and use the corpus? Should old age always be spent counting pennies?
Second, would age enable becoming minimalistic? There is so much one can do without. At some point, one must stop acquiring things. Why does one keep buying and hoarding? Is it a psychological response to feeling lonely? If needs are limited, expenses are limited, and anxiety about money is also lesser. What does it take to say no to stuff, and to be content with what is already there?
Third, why postpone giving to the day when one is no more? What happens if one systematically gives away little things at first, and slowly progresses to bigger things? Keep say 30% of your wealth for yourself, and give away all else? Wouldn’t that be enough to see one through? Shouldn’t the act of simplifying one’s finances begin soon after retirement and get tighter as years roll?
Fourth, how does one develop a network that is outside the family and nurture it? Like-minded friends undoubtedly add to the joys of life, especially at old age. But one must also be in touch with youth. For the sheer energy, freshness, fearlessness and unbounded joy that children and youth bring, they must be part of an elder’s life. Age bestows perspective and appreciation that enriches the lives of the young in no small measure. In these days of distant grandchildren, how does one bring these joys into one’s life?
Fifth, how does one deal with limited mobility? Of a life without travel? Or even the joys of a long walk or trek? How does one reconcile with the same piece of sky each day? Money can’t buy the joys that our own aging frames cannot enjoy. Is being relegated to passive television and social media the only solace? Will vicarious pleasure replace real experiences? How does one cope with the lack of new experiences? Or is that longing also something to be frowned upon?
Sixth, is there a point when one looks within, becomes quieter from that introspection, and exhibits gratitude rather than entitlement? How does that come about? Why is old age filled with noisy complaints, bitter accusations, and resenting withdrawal when nothing else works? What does it take for truth about one’s mortality to prevail as a humbling presence? This attitude may not be about money, or is it?
Retirement planning is so overtly focussed on adequacy of income and wealth to care about these questions. When one’s immediate family lives too far away, and when one knows that the loving spouse will also depart one day, how does one prepare for life? How does one minimise the scope of activities to just a few? How does one allocate money for what matters—relationships, conversations. Or how does one allocate money for what must be done —bequest, charity. And how does one order one’s life to clutch to the last strands of meaningful existence, even as the body and limbs are winding down. I am keen to know if personal finance offers any answers.
(The writer is Chairperson, Centre for Investment Education and Learning)