Oh, they are so cute!
Look at them! Aren’t they so pathetic?
It is so scary to think of old age!
The elderly and the very elderly evoke diverse reactions with feelings of appreciation, awe, apprehension and pity jostling with each other in equal measure.
Greying of their population is perhaps the most pressing concern for both the developed and developing countries. Life expectancy is increasing the world over. In India, it had been just 35 years at the time of Independence but is nearly 70 today. It is expected to go up further with development and better medical care. The US has a life expectancy of over 80. However, this is one statistic that doesn’t bring any cheer, because a longer life does not necessarily mean a healthy life, besides being fraught with social problems.
According to a report released by the United Nations Population Fund and Help Age, India had 90 million elderly persons in 2011, with the number expected to grow to 173 million by 2026. Of the 90 million seniors, 30 million live alone, and 90 per cent work for their livelihood. Women outnumber men in this segment with nearly three out of five single older women being very poor, and two out of three rural elderly women being fully dependent.
The care of the elderly has never been this complicated. It was not too long ago that they were automatically the responsibility of the children and the extended family. With the joint family system fast disappearing except maybe in smaller towns and villages, the care of elders has become a major social issue, especially since it involves a huge number of poor, who are entirely dependent on their children and don’t have any social security, medical insurance or free health care.
If the old are worried about getting older and becoming helpless without care, the young are equally concerned about taking care of their elders given that they might not be living close, might not have the resources to nurse them in case of a serious illness… The problems are so diverse and genuine that they need to be addressed both individually as well as a social problem by the government and other agencies.
Often we try to find scapegoats or make unfavourable comparisons to justify social ills. As always happens with ‘development’, old institutions get dismantled before a viable alternative system is put in place. I am sharing a few here with my observations.
The demise of the joint family system is at the root of all problems.
Oh, how we love scapegoats for every social ill! But wait! It is not true that the joint family system has disintegrated. According to a report, nearly 75% of elders in India still live in joint families. It is another matter that they are more in the rural areas and among the poor and even then, not the perfect solution.
It is naïve to believe that we can have the ideal joint family back in place — even the not-so-perfect one we knew a couple of generations ago. Nor can we expect that it to be the panacea for all problems associated with elder care. The society and lifestyles have changed too much for this to be true.
The very poor, especially in the rural areas continue living in joint families, often with three or more generations living together due to economic reasons. but also due to a sense of familial responsibility. Also perhaps they have not been exposed to the modern concepts of individual space and freedom. Where the men need to migrate, the joint family takes care of the wife and children left behind and the latter in turn care for the elders. Even in cities, they live together or at least in close proximity to each other. Apart from this section of the society, the only successful joint family model can be seen in Saas bahu serials. The reasons urban joint families are breaking up are many and most are unavoidable:
- Jobs are globalized
- A ‘joint family’ today only means the parents of one of the spouses, which doesn’t afford the same advantages of the larger ones of earlier generations.
- Unlike earlier, the elders don’t have absolute authority on family matters due to fast changing lifestyles.
- Grandparents are discovering the joys of traveling and pursuing their own interests in their second innings.
- Stressful lives result in frayed tempers when two generations share space which is often cramped in big cities…..and many more such reasons.
In cases where they do live together for whatever reason or no reason at all, the adjustments and compromises demanded of the members is very high. Often it is one generation — whether the younger or older – that makes the adjustments, putting tremendous pressure on it leading to friction sooner than later.
Why can’t old people just live their lives on their own instead of being a burden on their children? Look at the US. People work till their 80s, live alone well into their 90s. Why can’t Indians?
A very well-to-do woman posed this question to me one day. Her reason? She had a very old father-in-law at home whom she obviously resented taking care of despite having a battery of servants to do all his work.
Why indeed, I thought. Why can’t lazy Indians be like their active counterparts in the US who go about working till their 90s? So I did some internet research and came up with these resources for the old. Just take a look:
- Caregivers’ Resources which help in finding a nursing home or home caregivers, hospices, long distance caregiving and support for caregivers among other things.
- Education, Jobs, and Volunteerism for Seniors
- End-of-Life Issues like estate planning and hospice.
- Grandparents Raising Grandchildren get help of various kinds.
- Health care facilities and nutrition.
- Housing for seniors including reverse mortgages and in-home help.
- Help to seniors in investing, tax counseling, estate planning etc.
- Pension plans.
- Travel and Recreation for seniors including discounts for train travel and travel tips.
Impressive, aren’t they? The catch is, you have to be a citizen of the US to benefit from the above schemes! With all talks of cuts in social security in that country and a lot of homelessness and poverty among the very old, there still is an existing constitutional framework to deal with the problems facing elders.
By comparison – not to forget the huge difference in the size of geriatric population — we have a token number of state run old age homes which are in pathetic condition and some laws that are more of prevention of cruelty to seniors by family members. Of course discounts in railways and a slightly increased interest rates (provided they have the money to keep in the bank) are about the concessions they get. Reverse mortgaging has also been started, but many people are either not aware, or are comfortable about doing it.
I found an impressive list of social welfare schemes which includes many for senior citizens too. I think barring the Central Government Health Scheme, which is for Central government employees, there are no other comprehensive scheme for the others. Schemes like pension for senior citizens including farmers sound very impressive but how many are actually in place or working? And more importantly, how many are easily accessible for seniors, especially those who are not educated or aware of their rights?
One more thing, my friend: In India, parents consider it their duty to put their children through college – including professional courses like medicine and engineering — unlike in the US, where the children more often than not, finance their own education by working. With the cost of education going through the roof, many middle and lower middle class parents scrape the barrel to do it and are sometimes left with nothing except their pensions – that is, if they are in government service. Many parents sell their property to pay for the transit abroad for their children. So where will they live without help? Yes dear, it is still true for a large majority of the population, which is why they are forced to be a ‘burden’ on their children.
Today you ask any senior how they are and the only reply you will get is, ‘All I am hoping is to be active till I die.’ For, while it is possible to live on one’s own in old age when one is fit and healthy, if God forbid, something were to happen, what is the solution? Do we have nursing homes as in the US and other countries in the west? How fair is it to expect the children to nurse their elders?
It is no more an option for elders of either gender to put up their feet and retire after a particular age. Inflation and the lack of pension for employees of private companies and the self-employed have made it mandatory to work beyond 60. In rural areas and the lower income groups, this can go up even higher. Likewise, older women today run their homes and often have become global caregivers for their grandchildren.
My neighbour and his wife life in an old age home and love it there. Why can’t more people do the same?
Sure! But the ones where old people can have that kind of community are too expensive for most people. Besides, the waiting list is miles long, even for moderately expensive ones. The government run ones are depressing besides being too few in number to cater to the burgeoning elder population.
To come….some ideas and suggestions
Other posts in the series:
Images courtesy: Homepage: Swati Maheshwari
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