LIKE MANY IMMIGRANTS living in the U.S., I regularly return to my hometown to visit family and friends. My trips to Kolkata are usually short and jam-packed, seeing not just contemporaries, but also the older generation, including aunts and uncles, my parents’ friends and my friends’ parents.
My two recent visits—one last fall and the other this spring—were no exception, but I had mixed feelings this time. Most of the older generation are now in their 70s and early 80s, and two of them had passed away since my last pre-pandemic visit. I was happy to be able to catch up with the rest. But I was also saddened and surprised to find that, since my last visit, a few didn’t seem to be doing well emotionally, as if they’re struggling to find meaning in life.
On the surface, health problems and mobility issues are to blame, but that alone doesn’t explain such a change within a few short years. With most of their family members or adult children living elsewhere, these folks have no one to lean on for day-to-day support. They resist getting professional in-home senior care services or moving to retirement communities. This mental block is cultural and emotional, not financial.
Meanwhile, the rest of my older acquaintances seem to be having a great time in their golden years. They, too, face health and mobility issues, but these don’t appear to affect their positive outlook on life.
The best example is my maternal aunt—my mother’s younger sister—whom I call Mashi. Despite dealing with several family tragedies within the past year, including losing her husband of 50 years after a long period of ill-health, Mashi remains upbeat and full of energy. If you were to guess her age based on appearance and activities, you’d probably be off by at least 10 years.
What’s the secret to the higher life satisfaction of these older folks? I’m not sure about the others, but for Mashi, I can think of six factors:
1. Keeping busy with a purpose. I’ve never seen Mashi sitting idle and wondering what to do with her spare time. Words like sedentary and lazy don’t exist in her dictionary. Even at this age, she still feels responsible for the smooth running and upkeep of her household, which includes her younger son and his family, who live with her.
Mashi’s younger son—my cousin—is a doctor, his wife also has a career, and they have a four-year-old son who started kindergarten last year. Both my cousin and his wife assist with the household’s upkeep as best they can, and there’s also domestic help for certain chores. Still, Mashi is deeply involved with the remaining day-to-day work. It’s almost as if the household would cease to function if she were away for even a short time.
2. Nurturing relationships. Mashi makes a big effort to stay connected with all of her family and close friends—the quality I admire most about her. Her daily routine includes spending a few hours with her grandson, chitchatting with neighbors, talking to her older son’s family—they live abroad—and catching up with my mother over the phone. She’s also regularly in touch with her late husband’s extended family and friends. She rarely misses social gatherings, be it a puja celebration with in-laws, birthdays or special events of friends and acquaintances.
3. Healthy eating. Mashi has resisted today’s lifestyle of junk food and frequent dining out. To be sure, she’s curious about food and doesn’t mind other cuisines for a change. But her staple meals involve homemade food with fresh vegetables, legumes and grains, plenty of fish and occasionally eggs or meat. She loves to make traditional Bengali dishes with seasonal vegetables. Whenever I visit her, I enjoy tasting what she’s making that day.
4. Regular physical exercise. No, Mashi doesn’t go to a health club, swimming pool or any fitness center. Instead, she gets her physical exercise simply by choosing to walk whenever she needs to go anywhere within a one-mile radius. She finds one excuse or another every day to get out of the house for a brisk walk.
Often, the trip involves getting fresh vegetables and groceries from the neighborhood bazaars, picking up monthly provisions from convenience stores, buying a gift for an upcoming family event, or paying a visit to her in-laws who live close by. Even the pandemic lockdown didn’t change her walking habit.
5. Personal time. Despite a busy daily life, Mashi sets aside time to relax. Her favorite hobby is gardening. Living in a congested city, she doesn’t have the luxury of a backyard garden. Instead, she uses her home’s two terraces to grow a variety of plants in pots of various sizes. The small terrace on the second floor doesn’t get much sunlight, and the one on the fourth floor has no shade. She regularly moves pots between the terraces, prunes and weeds them, and treats the soil with tea leaves. According to her, looking after her plants is the most relaxing part of her day.
6. Financial security. Mashi doesn’t come across as wealthy, but she’s financially comfortable, thanks to a lifetime pension, retirement savings left by my late uncle and a decent-sized house. Both her sons are capable of offering financial support, but I doubt she’d ever need or ask for help. She can afford to spend beyond her regular expenses without worrying about outliving her money.
Mashi is in her 70s, but—given that she’s hardly changed since her early 60s—I have a feeling that she’ll be the same in her 80s, too.
Sanjib Saha is a software engineer by profession, but he’s now transitioning to early retirement. Self-taught in investments, he passed the Series 65 licensing exam as a non-industry candidate. Sanjib is passionate about raising financial literacy and enjoys helping others with their finances. Check out his earlier articles.