Inspirational words by our exclusive columnists; expert guidance and advocacy

It’s never 2 late

Author: admin

In the first in a series, international columnist Jack York shares the incredible life of Vivian Tellis Nayak, a champion for the rights of the elderly

Greetings, readers of Harmony-Celebrate Age!

I’m delighted to have this be my initial offering for the magazine. Executive Editor Arati Menon has asked me to write some words several times a year to bridge the gap between the transformational work being done in the US relative to ageing, and the same creative spirit occurring in India. I’m delighted to have my first two pieces highlighting the work of two remarkable Indian immigrants who have shared their skill and their compassion as they work now in the US.

Today’s words recognise a brilliant friend of mine, a soulful man from Mangalore who has helped transform thousands of lives, one heart at a time. Vivian Tellis Nayak, professor, author, motivator, gerontologist, researcher, he is all of the above. He is as comfortable passionately defending the rights of the elderly as he is whispering a ridiculous joke into your ear when he thinks no one is noticing.

His upbringing in India is a fascinating one. He was one of 14 children, his mother was not literate, his father with only three years of formal schooling. Yet of those 14 kids, from such a humble beginning, three have become PhDs and one an MD. His spirit of perseverance obviously runs in the family.

In 1967, at the age of 31, Vivian made his inaugural visit to the US. At that point in his life, he was an ordained priest. He needed to come to the US in order to study for his PhD in sociology; his life was driven in a spiritual direction. The priesthood seemed destined to be his life’s journey, but events got in the way and diverted his course. He met the crown jewel of his life, Mary, while studying in the US. She was a nun at the time and they both, rather dramatically, stepped down from their religious callings to start a life together. I don’t pretend to have an inside track as to how God thinks, but when you look at the thousands of lives these two people have changed I think it’s all good from His perspective!

Vivian continued his path towards higher education, becoming a professor at Hartwick College in upstate New York, teaching sociology for 10 years. While at Hartwick, he led four (three-month) off-campus programs to India, introducing 120 students to the culture of his motherland. He then taught at St Xavier University in Chicago for 17 years. As he reflects on his life, his biggest satisfaction comes from the hundreds of students that have long since started their own careers, individuals that tell him how meaningful he was to them and how he opened their minds as students—their lives changed for the better from him being a part of their journey—especially the students he took to India.

Throughout his academic career, Vivian developed a love for ageing, and for older people. As the years went by he became a sought-after research fellow, delivering countless papers and lectures on how to provide care for vulnerable older adults living in nursing homes and assisted living communities. He continues that work to this day. Mary has had her own passionate career in the field of ageing; to this day, she is a sought-after speaker working to transform the culture of nursing homes in the US.

Vivian professes a love for both of his countries, India and the United States. He misses intensely the friends and family in India that shaped his upbringing, which pains him more than anything else from his homeland. He returns frequently to India to be with his family. He appreciates the academic freedom that has existed in the US, a freedom that allowed him to openly publish articles and state positions without any fear of reprisal.

So a life lived well, a retired professor, a gerontologist in his later years—that would be an easy way to end this story; we could all give Vivian a casual word of thanks for his work and passion. But for me what elevates this man, as much as any person I have ever known, is the way he (with remarkable help from Mary) has come to terms with the devastation of living with Parkinson’s for 22 years. Vivian openly shares that part of his journey, not wanting to hide his condition and not letting that condition define who he is.

It’s not an easy journey, a brilliant mind trapped in a physical hell, but he makes that journey with grace, dignity and humour. I marvel at how he carries himself, with Mary holding his hand along the way. In fact, Mary and Vivian received a lifetime achievement award in 2013 from the American Health Care Association (our long-term care provider association) for their work to improve quality in nursing homes and assisted living in the US.

There’s no end to the energy of this man. Regardless of his age, or his disability, he just keeps moving forward, one shuffling step after another. He has just published a book, Return of Compassion to Health Care, available on Amazon India, which provides a glimpse into his work with ageing, and a window into his soul. It’s a great read; I recommend it highly.

So Vivian, keep on inspiring, keep on smiling, keep on whispering those bad jokes in my ear. You’re an inspiration to thousands, and a brother to me. My life, like so many of your students, has been enriched by your presence. It’s an honour to briefly share your journey.

York is co-founder of It’s Never 2 Late ® (iN2L), an American company dedicated to helping older adults realise the full benefits of today’s technology

Pix courtesy: Jack York
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
July 2017