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Shades of Banyan trees: Elderly Indians in Australia

The Banyan tree is the national tree of India. It is considered sacred and is often worshiped. An old banyan tree is deeply rooted and huge sized that offers shade from scorching sun. In India, elderly people are often metaphorically compared with the banyan tree who “offers shade upon the members of family, protect them from external adversities while binding the family together". Though the shift from traditional joint family systems towards nucleus families is changing the context- traces of cultural streaks still remains. Over the past several years, many people of Indian origin of varied age-group have migrated to Australia. Today, many of whom are elderly or technically speaking above 65 years of age. How are the Banyan trees of Indian origin anchoring their roots in Australia? This article provides a brief account on the subject of elderly Indians in Australia. Elderly Indians in Australia Today, aging is a global phenomenon. Records indicate that by 2022 there will be one billion older persons worldwide. As we know, lower fertility coupled with long life expectancy is the key factors impacting the phenomenon of population aging. In recognition of the growing number of seniors in the society, the United Nations has marked 1 October as the International Day of Older Persons1. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 1901, older people constituted 4.0% of Australia's population as compared to 14% (i.e over 3 million people aged 65 years and more) as per the 2011 Census. Interestingly, as on 30 June 2014, there were records of 4000 centenarians (3,200 females and 880 males) living in Australia2. India is also not far behind in catching up with population aging. Though, majority of its population is aged less than 30, a recent report notes that India had 90 million elderly persons in 2011, with the number expected to grow to 173 million by 2026 and to 323 million, constituting 20 per cent of the total population, by 20501. It’s a whole new world that would require new thought processes and actions in a wide range of areas including health, aged care, size of working age population, dependency ratio, housing facilities, opportunities for social, cultural, economic participation and more. Though, overall, Indian-migrants in Australia are young with a median age of 31 years, the 2011 Census notes, there were over 20,000 India-born people who were above 65 years of age that include 3 (female) centenarians. This number is expected to grow in future. In Australia, elderly people of Indian origin constitute of around 0.3% of the overall older residents living in the country. It would certainly be interesting to hear the story of this cohort of seniors. How have they adapted in their adopted country? Culturally speaking- Are the roots anchored? The perception about aging varies greatly from culture to culture. Unlike, in many Western cultures where aging can be seen as an undesirable phenomenon, in Indian culture aging is seen as gaining of wisdom, status and spirituality. Usually, in the society, elderly are viewed as authoritative figures who has more life experiences. They are expected to bind the family together by transmitting traditional values, telling stories from their life experiences and preparing their younger generation for the sail. In turn, the younger generations are expected to support and care for the elderly as it’s time to pay back for what they have done. This is what some say to help secure their ‘rightful dependency’4. Overall, the state of well-being of elderly Indians in Australia is influenced by a few factors that include whether they have moved here to be with their children or they had come here on their own in their younger days, length of time since they arrived in Australia, English language proficiency, computer literacy, linkage with the community, availability of economic resources etc. Though there is dearth of information as regard to the issues and challenges faced by this cohort, prima-facie, it is indicative that many of them (especially those who moved in to be with their children) strive to adapt to the new environment. While a few of them get associated with senior groups /community organisations to socially interact with people from similar backgrounds and circumstances, rest still find it difficult to mingle with the broader community. However, one thing is quite evident that is their zeal, excitement and effort to adapt to the new culture and environment. They are not shy to try their hands in learning computers while at the same time making hand gestures to communicate with the locals. In conclusion, the quote by popular English TV presenter Clive Anderson reminds us, “School children and older people like the idea of planting trees. For children, it is interesting that an acorn will grow into an oak, and for older people it is a legacy. And the act of planting a tree is not that difficult”. Be it oak or Banyan, trees well cared will almost always provide shade aplenty. By Dr. Jayantee Mukherjee Saha

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