It is very difficult to demarcate the beginning of old age because old age is more chronological than biological. Living a certain number of years does not necessarily make one old. In fact old age and senescence are two different things. Where as old age indicates to a particular period of one’s life, senescence means deterioration of biological efficiency and weakening of vitality.The Sanskrit word for old age is Jara which is derived from the root ‘Jri’ which means to decay. ‘Jara’ or old age is that state of a body where the decaying process starts. It is numbered as the fourth state of life, the first three being the child hood, adolescence and youth. The gods are called ‘Tridasa’ and ‘Nirjara’ because they experience only the first three stages and not the fourth one.1
The Bhagavata describes ‘Jara’ as the daughter of the god of death: (Jara is the daughter of the god of death and hence is not welcomed by people.)
Cause of Old Age
Perception of Modern Science
The widely known Hayflick theory, which is named after the famous microbiologist Hayflick holds that human cells are capable of a limited number of divisions before they perish. This theory suggests that ageing is programmed to the cells of the body.
Perception of The Yogi
The Yogi’s perception about the cause of old age is quite different. The Yogi holds that a fluid oozes from a particular point of the head, known as the place of moon. It moves through the palate and reaches the navel which is known as the place of sun where it is absorbed. This fluid is known by many names like Sara, Amrita, Amaravaruni etc. The constant destruction of the fluid causes decay in the body. The Hathayoga Pradipika presents it very clearly:
(The sun devours all the nectar that the moon secrets. Therefore the body is affected by Jara.)
Even the wastage of this nectar has been considered to be the cause of death of an organism. Again the Hathayoga Pradipika says:
(The essence of the body is leaked out by the moon. This is the cause of mortality in human being.)
The Yogi firmly holds that a check on the wastage of this essential fluid results in a check on the aging process and death.
The mythological truth that the gods drank the nectar (instead of wasting it) and became immortal which has this Yogic endorsement behind it.
Exact Age for Being Old
It is very difficult to demarcate the beginning of old age because old age is more chronological than biological. Living a certain number of years does not necessarily make one old. In fact old age and senescence are two different things. Where as old age indicates to a particular period of one’s life, senescence means deterioration of biological efficiency and weakening of vitality.
Biological inefficiency and decrease of vitality are caused by various factors. Therefore it is not noticed uniformly in all individuals in any particular age. Some people may experience it at an early age where as it may come quite late to some other. And yet in people who are engaged in high spiritual Sadhana it may never come.
Expedition of Aging Process
Various factors are responsible both for delaying and expediting the process of old age.
Persons leading an unrestricted, indisciplined and irregular life are susceptible to early old age. Eating prohibited or harmful food, indulging in immoral or damaging habits may pave ways to early old age. The Brahmavaivartya Parana, very meaningfully gives a common name ‘sin’ to all such factors. It is “sin” (immoral, prohibited activities), holds the Purana which causes all disorders in the body:
(Sin causes diseases in the body. Sin causes old age. Sin is the cause of horrendous sorrows and miseries of life.
Again the Brahmavaivartya Purana forwards some examples of such habits which expedite old age. Such habits include eating dry meat, taking curd in the night, having intercourse with older women, women in their menstrual period and with prostitutes and so on.
In short indisciplined lifestyle, undesirable food habits and immoral activities may be called the expediters of old age.
In addition to this tension, depression and stress contribute a lot to the expedition of old age.
Problems In The Old Age
Advancement of age usually creates numerous problems in the individual. The Brahma Vaivartya Purana enumerates the number of old age disorders as sixty four:
Geriatric problems may be mainly divided into four categories: physical, psychological, emotional and social.
There are various physical problems in the old age. Following are some very common physical disorders of the old age.
- Cardiovascular – hypertension, heart attack, rupture of blood vessels etc. are common disorders in old age.
- Respiratory – asthma and bronchitis etc. are common problems.
- Musculoskeletal – osteoporosis, spasm, drooping shoulder are invariably found in aged people.
- Gastro-intestinal – dyspepsia and flatulence etc. are common geriatric gastro-intestinal problems.
- Genito-urinary – nocturia, prostate enlargement are some of the genito-urinary problems of old age.
- Locomotor sytem – osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout etc. are commonly seen in old people.
- Endocrinological – diabetes is one of the major endocrinological problems found in old age.
- Opthalmic – senile cataract and glaucoma are very common in old people.
- Hearing – loss of hearing and hard- hearing are the major hearing problems of old age.
- Dental – gingivitis, pyorrhea, loss of tooth are extremely common geriatrics.
- Skin – loss of sensation is a common problem of the old age. Wrinkles and rashes are usual features of old age.
- Nervous – insomnia is commonly found old age problems.
- Problems of hair – loss of hair and baldness are almost universal.
- Cancer – the danger of cancer is multiplied with the advancement of age.
- Menopausal – in addition to all these, ladies experience menopausal health disorders which again include various problems like vasomotor instability etc.
No doubt physical problems are numerous in an old physique. But psychological problems are no less acute than the physical ones. Following are a few psychological troubles common in old people.
- An inferiority complex arises out of diminished capacities and decreased financial status.
- Irritation in trivial matters and obstinacy are other marking features of old age.
- Senile dementia is often noticed in old people.
- Sense of being neglected in the family is a common complaint of the aged.
- Depression is the most harmful and widely noticed psychological trouble of the senior citizens.
On par with the seriousness of physical and psychological complications, old age is often a victim of emotional problems.
An acute desire for affection from the kinsfolk especially from the younger ones increases in the old people. Expectation of affection and association of family members like son, daughter and grand children is acute. Attachment to life increases.
Break down of joint families has rendered old people greatly unattended and insecured. Many have to take refuge in old age asylums. Yet many others have to depend on paid domestic servants which has often been proved a threat to their life and property.
Preventive and Curative Measures for Geriatrics
Maharsi Charaka says – “He who treats the disease before its commencement or at an early stage experiences long-lasting happiness.”
This Ayurvedic axiom has maximum relevance in the treatment of geriatrics. Because, old age problems are best confronted by preventive measures than curative ones. Therefore geriatrics has to be treated much before the commencement of old age. In fact the ideal time for treating the old age problems is youth. Adherence to discipline in young age keeps the geriatric problems away.
The Brahma Vaivartya Purana with an appropriate allegory describes how old age problems keep distance from persons who know how to prevent it:
(Jara and her siblings (geriatric health problems) move round the world (in search of victims). They do not succeed in capturing persons who are self-disciplined and know the measures to tackle old age. Jara and the associates run away form such people like serpents run away from Garuda.)
Although there are varieties of preventive and curative treatments for the old age yet the Yogic practices are unfailingly effective if adhered to with sincerity and regularity. The Swetaswatara Upanisad proclaims the truth with utmost confidence:
(A person whose body has been burnt by the fire of Yoga has no disease, no old age and no death).
The Gheranda Samhita also holds that decay in the body is effectively checked by the practice of Yoga:
(The human body goes on decaying like an unbaked pot kept in the water. It is purified (strengthened) by burning it in the fire of Yoga.)
A regular practice of Yogic exercises from the time of youth is a great help in neutralizing the impacts of old age. Below are some of the practices which are to be practiced in order to fight geriatrics.
Surya Namaskar: Surya Namaskar is a group of twelve asanas in which various categories of postures are included. Regular practice of Surya Namaskara from the time of youth lessens the trouble of old age to a great extent. Practice of Surya Namaskara may not be easy for people who are already aged but regular practice from the young age enables one to perform the postures even in a very advanced stage of life.
Pavanamuktasana: The series of asanas known by the name Pavanamuktasana are highly beneficial for the management of locomotor disorders and gastrointestinal problems of old age.
Ardhamatsyendrasana: It is a spinal twisting asana. This is very beneficial in keeping the body flexible and fighting the musculo-skeletal problems of old age.
Bhujangasana: Bhujangasana is a backward bending asana which helps in fighting the problems of drooping shoulder and many other spinal disorders.
Savasana: There is no better relaxing posture than the Savasana which provides rest not only to the body but also to the mind. The Hathayoga Pradipika is highly vivacious in praising the Savasana : Savasana removes fatigue from the body and provides rest to the mind. Savasana is one of the best fighters of psychological problems like depression and mental stress.
With the counselling of experts the senior citizen can do other Asanas too according to his requirements and capability for specific problems in the body.
Pranayama is the Yogic practice having tremendous preventive and curative potential for geriatric treatment especially for the psycho-somatic and emotional problems. Although almost all the pranayamas are beneficial for old people yet the following pranayamas have specific benefit for various maladies associated with old age.
1. Nadisodhana: Nadisodhana pranayama is one in which air is retained in the lungs for a specific period. As a result even the remote corners of the capillaries are filled with oxygen. This is highly beneficial for various problems of the lungs. Filling and retention of air in the capillaries maximizes the circulation of oxygen to the various parts of the body which relieves the body from complications due to insufficient supply of oxygen. Nadisodhana is highly effective in managing cardiac health problems.
2. Bhramari: Bhramari pranayama gives a good exercise to the brain cells by the sound vibration. This helps in the management of senile loss of memory and other related problems. It is a good practice to fight depression and is a good device to release tension and mental stress. It not only calms down the mind but also creates feeling of happiness. The Pranayama is highly praised for keeping the mind cheerful:
(The Yogis, who practice this Pranayama regularly experience an unspeakable happiness in their mind.)
3. Bhastrika: Bhastrika pranayama is highly beneficial for problems like asthma and other respiratory disorders.
Among the Kriyas14 Kapalabhati is one of the best practices with multifarious benefit for the young and old alike. It is highly preventive and curative for phlegmatic health problems of the body. In addition to its various health benefits it is greatly helpful in keeping the blood pressure and blood sugar normal.
Neti: Neti kriya is another beneficial practice for the aged to fight respiratory problems.
Tratak : Trataka is immensely helpful in fighting ophthalmic problems. It is a very good practice to fight senile cataract and glaucoma.
Khechah Mudra: Khechari Mudra is an extremely significant practice for fighting the aging process in a human body. As mentioned above, the decaying process in the body is because of the loss of the invigorating fluid oozing from the head in the body. Khechari Mudra is exclusively designed to check the flow of the fluid at its emanating place in the palate. In Khechari Mudra one reverses the tongue and obstructs the points from where the fluid leaks out in the palate. Practice of Khechari Mudra regularly from the young age certainly delays the aging process, Yogis hold:
(Khechari Mudra removes diseases and old age problems)
Dharana and Dhyana: Dharana is to fix the mind to a particular point for a specific period. Dhyana is an advanced stage of Dharana. These two practices are extremely fruitful in managing many psychological and psycho-somatic disorders of the practitioner. These two practices are greatly helpful in fighting depression and stress in old age and keeping the mind composed.
Swadhyaya: Swadhyaya is an important component of Yoga. Swadhyaya has two parts. One is a regular study habit of spiritual books. The second is repetition of sacred Mantras. Swadhyaya is a great helper in culturing spirituality and keeping the mind calm. A strong habit of Swadhyaya fights senile loss of memory and acts as an excellent dispeller of depression.
Iswarapranidhana: Iswara pranidhana, another great component of Yoga, is complete surrender to God. Practaice of this develops spirituality in a person which provides immense strength to face complications of life with great bravery.
Cheerfulness: The result of the above mentioned practices surpass the expected quantum of result if only there is a touch of cheerfulness along with the practices. Cheerfulness of mind puts an end to all miseries of life, holds the Gita.
Share of responsibility of the family and society
Fighting geriatric problems is not the sole responsibility of the senior citizen alone. The family and the society have their share of responsibility in the fight. And the great Indian tradition has been excellent in the matter.
The Sanskrit synonym for ‘old man’ is ‘Vriddha’ which literally means a matured person. The very word speaks volumes about the traditional attitude of the society towards an old man. Indian culture looks at the old not as an incapable hopeless human being but as a respectable matured personality. Honouring and serving the old people has been considered as a great and highly rewarding virtue. Manu, the designer of Indian society vouches:
(The longivity, knowledge, fame and strength of a person increase if he honours and serves the old.)
The service and respect paid by the young to the old is piteously negligible in comparison to the sacrifice and pain the old undergoes in raising the young, reminds Manu:
(The great pain that parents undergo in raising a child can not be repaid even after striving for one hundred years.)
Considering their colossal sacrifice for the children, parents are placed in an equal height with the gods by the Taittiriya Upanisad:
(Treat your mother as a goddess. Treat your father as a god.)
Service of old mother and father is no less sacred an action than visiting a pilgrimage, says the Mahabharata:
(Service of father and mother is a pilgrimage)
The Sanskrit synonym of ‘son’ is Putra, the derivation of which is done as the following:
(Brahma himself gave the name “Putra” to the son because he saves the father (and the mother) from the hell called Pum.)
Now this requires a deeper analysis. Which hell is it? Where is it situated? Is it not the hell of old age when the old parents are unable to move even for their easements? Is it not the time when the helpless aged desperately needs the service of his dear ones? Is it not like saving them from a hell by tendering desired service to them?
In short this is the great Indian tradition where service to the old is considered not as a deed of compassion or mercy but as the most sacred duty of the younger generation.
If the adult takes care of the old, he sets precedent for the young to learn. As a result he receives care when he himself is old. It creates an undying tradition of love, affection and care among generations. And this is the best way to fight the geriatrics.
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