Old age is not easy. It gets even harder when you have to take that journey all by yourself.
As I approach my 40s, solitary and independent, thoughts of my impending old age hover about in my mind. An environmentalist, with a satisfying career, I own a home in Mumbai and have a busy social life. I am out to my family. And although I am used to living alone I realize that each year, the chances of my finding a long-term life partner reduces. In the digital age, I can order almost all requirements online. But I will still need physical and emotional support to make my years a comfortable experience. What do I do with my house and savings after my death? Of late, these thoughts have steadily begun to occupy a corner in my mind.
When I look around, I find many gay friends in the same boat. So I decided to talk to a few older single men. Perhaps peeping into their minds would give me few hints?
Shailesh spent almost two decades in the US before returning to India in his late 30s to take care of his aging parents and explore the possibility of settling down with an Indian life partner. But as he completes almost a decade in his own home - a stone’s throw away from his parents’- he realizes the vast difference between the US and India. "The LGBT community in the States came out way early and their generations have struggled hard for their rightful social place. While coming out to the family is becoming a common in urban India, LGBTQ individuals are still hesitant to and discuss their sexuality with the larger society. India's society and legislation is still not progressive."
I ask him about his plans for his later years. " More than materialistic comforts, I wish to live with a group of people I truly connect with." he replies, "When I watched Aligarh, what struck me the most was the silence in the protagonist’s life. He has been sidelined by society and is living a lonely life with a few hobbies that cannot fulfill his existence.”
Bindumadhav Khire, a 53-year-old social worker and President of Sampathik Trust, says, "I do not want to spend my old age in an LGBT community shelter or with anyone. Though my profession involves substantial interactions with people, I am not a 'people' person. I am an introvert. Since our culture has given prominence to family and relatives, we never developed any alternate social support system. So people take shelter in old age homes by compulsion, not by choice."
As I speak to more out and about older men, I find some common threads. All of them have busy professions, which they plan to pursue till the end. They have cultivated hobbies, be it music, movies, reading, or the fine arts, hobbies that keep them engaged after office hours. Everyone has a younger friend circle and is socially active, both offline and online.
Each one acknowledges the arrival of health complications and has planned to hire 24*7 medical attendant, and domestic help when inevitable. They don’t see sexuality as the sole criteria to choose a company in old age. They are gearing up to live alone, if required, by planning and working on physical and mental health. They have made financial plans, and in some cases, legal wills, to manage their inherited and earned wealth for meaningful use and to avoid conflicts after their death.
"I have resolved that I will never let anyone take advantage of my old age because of me being alone. I see many older guys in relationships for the sake of perceived company, even when they are aware of being taken for a ride by their partners," says Vivek Anand, the 55-year-old CEO of Humsafar Trust. He mentions that the younger generation is more mature when it comes to accepting their LGBTQ identity and issues. One hopes that legal and social conditions will be more favorable for older generations in the coming decades.
Both Bindumadhav and Vivek fondly talk about their 'foster daughters and sons' whom they consider as their own children. They have offered emotional support and career guidance for the growth of these young people. But they know that these bonds don’t translate into expectations of being attended to in old age. Everyone, especially the Generation Next, has a busy professional and social life. Rather, they both hope that their 'children' will eventually settle with a loved one.
Pratap, a 53-year-old IT professional, is a geek and a lover of the fine arts. I find him to be an epitome of acceptance when it comes to old age and independence. "Even in a relationship, I would like to live alone. I fiercely love my physical, intellectual and emotional space. I take care of my health with yoga. That strengthens my physical and mental health, which is very important while living alone. I have promised myself that I will not live a mediocre, directionless life and I try to fulfill it," he says.
Pratap likes to spend time visiting senior citizens “I understand that they have material wealth, but need some company. I hope, like them, I will be lucky too, to have such friendships in my last years," he states with a smile.
When it comes to managing wealth and savings post-death, LGBTQ individuals find themselves in a unique and difficult position. Indian laws do not recognize same-sex marriage so the question of inheriting the wealth by a same-sex spouse does not arise. What happens to the possessions then?
Bindumadhav is very pragmatic about the issue. As of today, he feels that there are four possible inheritors - his parents (if his parents are alive at that time); Samapathik Trust (if he has not closed the Trust); his foster sons (if they are financially not well off) and the rest to the Government of India treasury. Vivek plans to donate his savings to deserving NGOs. Pratap and Shailesh find it best to pass most of their possessions to their extended family, and donate a fraction to social issues. As I talk to more people I uncover many more plans. But in India, we have so many LGBTQ individuals in the closet, financially dependent or socially isolated. How are they planning their old age?
While financial planning is important, physical and mental well-being is also key. I know I have time but must stop taking my good health for granted and start exercising. I yearn to find meaningful connections and find my 'communities'. Most importantly, I must keep my mind open to refresh myself and live an experiential life. This may not be a 'Eureka' moment but finding the trail to a content old age is definitely reassuring.