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Redefining Retirement

The work continues for Kerala’s retired priests

story and photographs by Peter Lemieux

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Seventy-three-year-old Father Joseph Manikath, the most recent arrival at St. Paul’s Home in Edakkunnu, India, sits uneasily on the edge of his bed as a staff member struggles to install satellite television in his new room. Despite the mundane nature of the task, Father Manikath appears anxious. One moment, he seems ready to lurch for the shiny metal walker at his side, get up and direct the worker. The next, he leans away, allowing Father Augustine Thenayan, his friend, colleague and the retirement home’s director, to manage the situation.

Only three days into his stay at St. Paul’s, Father Manikath is still struggling to adjust to his new home and chapter in his life.

“Am I happy to be retired? No, not yet,” he admitted. Settling into retirement has left the priest decidedly unsettled. “But this is now my home, so I have to be happy.”

For the fortunate few, retirement arrives without a hitch. The date has been marked on the calendar in advance for months, if not years. A lifetime worth of “mind-body-spirit” preparation has softened the potentially jarring change of life. The only surprise might be which long-lost friends show up at the send-off celebration.

But for many, retirement arrives abruptly — a company downsizing, a sudden quirky heart palpitation or, as in Father Manikath’s case, a misstep and the thud of a painful fall.

“I broke my leg nine months ago and couldn’t get around easily anymore,” said the priest, who for 35 years taught metaphysics and Indian philosophy to seminarians and on three separate occasions served as a pastor in the Syro-Malabar Catholic Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly. “I had no choice. I had to ask the bishop if I could retire.”

It has been said that the most reliable measure of a society’s humanity is how well it cares for its elderly. If this is true, then as far as Keralite society is concerned, the jury is still out.

Today, Kerala is at the forefront of a major demographic shift sweeping across India — a growing elderly population compounded by a declining number of young people.

Compared to other Indian states, Kerala has the greatest proportion of elderly persons. In 2001, more than a tenth of its population was 60 years of age or older. The University of Kerala’s Department of Demography predicts this number will rise to 16 percent by 2021 and to 30 percent by 2051.

To help explain the increase, they point to recent public health data, which indicate a greater life expectancy, lower birthrates, declining infant mortality, improved health care, better nutrition and higher literacy rates among the population.

Progress in so many crucial areas of human and social development has made Kerala the perennial poster child for the United Nations Development Program and torchbearer for its Human Development Index. For this, Keralites can hold their heads up high. By the same token, these improvements have generated a new set of social challenges, some of which make many Keralites hang their heads in shame.

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