Old age and caring for the elders


IIT – Madras is a prestigious academic institution located at the heart of Chennai, India. It is amazing to see such a sprawling campus built in an area which might have been a forest at one time. The suburban growth around the campus has made it a green oasis in a heavily populated urban metropolis. Much to the credit of the management and their long term vision, the IIT – M is a place for cohabitation of people, animals (mostly deer, monkeys and birds) and forest like vegetation. My research collaboration has brought me to this campus many time in the recent years.

Much of the vegetation in this campus are tall and well grown trees, like Neem trees and Banyan trees among others. Despite the oppressive summer heat my early morning walks in this campus has been a soul cleansing exercise. Few sights that caught my attention while walking during my recent visit here and the thoughts that followed are summarized below:

Trees are like people. They grow from seeds, spring up and develop branches. They do good in their own way when they are alive such as through their sprawling canopy offering shade, flowers, fruits, etc. With passage of time they lose their vitality at their roots or in the trunk and eventually die. Some trees are used even after they perish such as fire wood, lumber for construction, furniture, etc. So too are the wealth and knowledge of many people used well after they are gone!

IMG_2728Occasionally we see the signs of old age very visible in a few people. I was reminded of it when I saw this neem tree. Its trunk reflects the years of growth and struggle.  With only one large branch and another weak branch the tree continues to survive.

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In contrast we see a relatively young neem tree as one would normally think of such trees with branches spreading in all directions and covering a wide area underneath. Neem trees survive solely on the strength of their trunks. They can survive harsh summers with very little water. So do many people who endure their old age largely based on their personal tenacity and strength.

IMG_2730Banyon tree is the national tree of Republic of India. It is unique in that it sprouts new roots from the branches. Hence as it grows older and even as its trunk weakens with time, its branches are supported by a new network of roots which act like the trunk for the tree. At some point it is difficult to even recognize the original trunk among the myriad of new roots supporting the tree. There are many families where such invisible merging of the old with the new seems natural. Generally we find such support in traditional families.

IMG_2729As families grow apart and nuclear families with few children have evolved such intrinsic support for the elders seems to be the challenge of the day. Then I saw this section where banyan trees adjacent to each other have grown with their roots (growing off the branches) in a way that several trees have merged into one! I could not believe this versatility in nature. I went around several times looking into this collection of trees to see if I could isolate the trees from each other. No I could not.  May be it is nature’s way of suggesting new models that can evolve where seemingly different families (trees) may find ways to support the elders collectively and not merely attempt to do the same within their own physical and social confines?

One could think that such arrangement may be possible within families with similar background and culture, like the trees from the same species. What happens when the families are totally different? As I was thinking and walking along, I came across the next scene.

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Palm trees are distinctly different from Banyan trees. Palm trees have no branches. They grow straight up with few leaves only at the very top. Single or isolated palm trees cannot survive the forces of wind for too long. Yet, here was an old palm tree right in the middle of the thick growth of a banyan tree. It was almost like a person or family isolated and left alone, yet protected well by the close knit alliance with another family. Is it another model for care of elders in our society?

Nature is a limitless teacher, when we take the time to look around?

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1 Response to Old age and caring for the elders

  1. Dilip mathur says:

    beautiful thoughts… reminds of the Gita metaphor of the ficus religiosa tree… roots above and branches below… we are rooted in Om, our unknown highest potential….

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