Jun 16, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Aging remarkably

Published: May 16, 2019
A lifelong activist and retired midwife is teaching her peers to stay engaged… and not burden their children

Duncan Graham

The proverb ‘banyak anak, banyak rejeki’ (many children, many advantages) implies there should be enough kids to look after the parents when they retire. That care is most likely to be provided at home and to be total, as less than 25 per cent of Indonesians retire with a pension.

Longevity is also an issue in Indonesia, which has the fifth largest population of older citizens in the world. The Global Age Watch 2015 Index recorded that 8.2 per cent (around 21 million) of Indonesia’s population was aged over 60, with well over half of them women. However, based on Indonesia’s slowing birth rate and lengthening life expectancy, they and other agencies project this will be close to 20 per cent by 2050.

Government facilities are few. The Social Affairs Agency in Jakarta (population 10 million plus) reports that just over a thousand elderly people are getting care at three city-owned nursing homes.

However, not all older Indonesians expect to or want to be a burden on their families.

‘Women must empower themselves. Whatever our age and status we need to work together and understand the feelings of others. Never be a burden on your children – they have their own lives. I don’t feel guilty about being alone and independent.’

A stirring statement, delivered with force, knuckles rapping the table, the coffee cups jumping as in an earthquake.

Tati (Tatik) Soepijarniwati seems too small, too slight and too old to agitate – but doubters beware. This is not someone new to asserting their rights; she started when aged eleven.

It happened in Singosari where her family has lived for generations. It was the capital of the thirteenth century Tumapel Kingdom, which she admires and depicts on the batik she designs.

Tatik’s test came in a sudden confrontation with a Japanese soldier during the occupation.

‘He stopped me in the street and told me to salute his flag,’ she recalled. ‘I refused and he got angry. I had no intention of obeying so I told him I had to get home to care for my dying mother and had no time to follow his orders. Fortunately, he let me go.’

Tatik, now 86, has only strengthened her attitudes since she was a little kid staring down raw power, an armed invader who could have bashed her – the usual treatment to humiliate citizens who flouted rules.

Now she runs an angklung group of retirees making music from shaking bamboo tubes and giving public performances. When not on stage she designs batik to illustrate the rich history of central East Java. In between she does all she can to keep her generation from slumping into misery.

Her quest includes visiting the psycho-geriatric ward in the nearby Lawang Psychiatric Hospital where she talks to staff about the issues of growing old. She was recently in Singapore to look at their facilities for the aged (‘we do things better here’ she says) and also gives pep talks to the depressed and distressed.

Tatik with staff at the Lawang Psychiatric Hospital / Author

The hospital ward is clean and bright, but it’s the raw end of the spectrum and not for the delicate. Staff and volunteers deal with a caseload of shattered lives and hopes, offering cheer to those patients discarded by their families and suffering from the ennui psychologists label ‘resignation syndrome’.

Tatik has assembled a long list of mnemonics, the easy-to-understand memory jerkers built around commonplace words she shares with the patients. A favorite is saiki, the Javanese word for now. In her system the letters stand for Sehat (health), Aktifitas, Inspirasi, Kreatifitas and Inovasi. ‘Use these principles and all will be well’, she says. Coming from a youngster, however well qualified, the words would bounce away. But her manner and age give them weight.

Tatik went to a Catholic school and learned Dutch which she still speaks despite getting little practice, for that generation has almost passed. She trained as a health professional and developed her ideas while working as a family-planner with a German doctor.

This was during the Suharto New Order government when an intense national campaign rammed down the brakes on runaway population growth.

In one of the world’s largest social engineering exercises, thousands of women community leaders were employed to advocate ‘dua anak cukup’ (two children is enough). The two finger V-sign was plastered everywhere and often featured in garish statues showing the Ideal Family – with the eldest child usually a boy.

It worked. Tatik’s mother had 10 children, and she had two daughters. Though not everywhere. Cynics noted that while the second president was urging contraception his wife Siti ‘Tien’ Hartinah had tripled her quota.

When the government program stabilised, Tatik became a midwife, mainly working in the villages. Here she used the moments of intimacy to urge women to space their pregnancies and insist their husbands use condoms.

Inevitably some guys grumbled that she was a trouble-maker by poking into their bedroom behaviour. Which worried her about as much as the Japanese soldier’s bayonet.

‘Women are so often the victims,’ she said. ‘Men need to have much greater respect. We get tired from raising children and doing housework and are often too exhausted to enjoy sex.’

‘Husbands have to understand these facts. Things are getting better but they are not yet good enough.’

Despite her frankness she retains some prudery, complaining about a huge statue on the road to Malang of Ken Dedes, the first queen of Singosari and mother of the Rajasa dynasty that later ruled all Java, because she is portrayed topless.

Tatik’s husband, who worked for the state oil company Pertamina, died last century but she refused to remarry, saying she was a ‘one-man woman’.

Physically agile, she doesn’t use glasses and only has some slight problems with hearing. Unlike many pensioners she has embraced modern technology. She uses a cellphone and has a WhatsApp account. A diary helps her track appointments.

The author with Tatik and friends / Author

But on some issues she remains implacably in the past, an ardent supporter of the 10-point Pembinaan Kesejahteraan Keluarga (PKK, family welfare program) launched in the era of Sukarno, a man she admires: ‘I went to every rally he spoke at.’

Criticised for regimenting women, or ‘manipulating motherhood’, PKK has since moved from health and hygiene towards education, a cause Tatik urges to all who come within earshot, though always politely.

‘The elderly can get apathetic if they don’t get involved in society,’ she said, dissociating herself from the stay-at-homes in her cohort.

‘Don’t be jobless, or a floater.

‘Grab knowledge from the tree and reach as high as you can. Then when you’ve found education, open your mind. Don’t be arrogant or lazy; mix with people who can inspire.

‘Eat meals together. Read books – take an interest in everything. I have my cat and chickens. I am never lonely. I go to the mosque twice a day to pray and contemplate; to seek peace.

‘I don’t care what religion you follow, you can still get guidance from God. You don’t need to depend on your children.’

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist living in East Java. He writes the blog Indonesia Now.


Inside Indonesia 136: Apr-Jun 2019

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