Those are the terms one can use interchangeably for Old Age Homes and Retirement Communities respectively and which are being touted as the solutions for the increasingly greying India.
The concept of elders staying away from families is not new to Indian tradition. As I had mentioned in the first post in the series, Vanaprasthashrama is the third stage in one’s life when he or she moved beyond family and worldly concerns to seek the higher meaning of existence. Perhaps that is why OAHs were termed Vridhashram, a sort of surrogate Vanaprasthashrama – where elders came to live a life of peace and contemplation. Even today there are many ashrams in places like Haridwar and Rishikesh where elders go to pursue a spiritual life. However, the reasons for elders going into an OAH are completely different in modern times.
Today far from being dignified Vridhashrams, OAHs are little more than refuges and sort of orphanages for abandoned and abused elders. Mention of them brings to mind images of dreary, depressing and dilapidated places. Loneliness and sadness are etched on the faces of the residents as they wait futilely for their kith and kin to take them home or at least come for a visit. Vrindavan is home to thousands of abandoned widows who eke out their living amid abominable conditions and is a shame on all Indians. You might have seen the episode on the plight of elders on Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate.
In the light of the above, I am sure all those who talk of elders going to an OAH actually mean the Retirement Communities (RC), giving the entire subject a gay perspective. Built in picturesque locales outside the cities these RCs are the privileged cousins of OAHs and have a resort like feel with a salubrious climate, and independent living arrangement. Many offer the services of caregivers for elders who need them, for an additional cost. One RC even advertised itself as a perennial ‘summer-camp-for-elders’. For anyone looking for a comfortable retired life and can afford them, these are very good options but finding one close to where one wants to live might not be easy. There are many RCs in Coimbatore, Pune and other places as also pricey senior homes with 5-star facilities in most metros.
RCs make the children feel secure in the knowledge that their parents are in a safe place where help is at hand when needed. And being classy and independent, they have no stigma attached to them. On the contrary, they are slowly becoming status symbols, especially for the well-to-do sections of the society.
Despite the above, sending elders to such homes and communities is a very emotional issue, with strong views both in favour and against them. So much so that sometimes it is hard to have a decent discussion about it without tempers running high. According to the latest HelpAge India survey, 86% of youth consider large joint families to be the solution for tackling the problems of elder abuse. And yet, the clamour for elders moving into one as the only solution is growing in volume. Why the confusion?
Is it because tolerance is at an all-time low? Is it because in a materialistic society, productivity is the yardstick for a person’s worth and an elder is no longer ‘productive’? Is it because elders are seen as interfering, difficult and even impossible to live with? Or is it because we believe that in the West – that model society — all parents get up and join an OAH or RC as they reach retirement age?
It is all of the above and some more, but the most often cited reason is loneliness. ‘They are so lonely with all of us out most of the day and busy when we are home. At an OAH, they will have the company of people their age.’
It is assumed that elders are constantly in need of company but it is not so. Many like to read, watch TV, go for walks and chat with others in the neighbourhood and generally remain busy with their activities while remaining in touch with their families. There are so many elders who demur from joining an OAH or RC because they feel ‘being with only old people all the time would be depressing.’ It is only those for whom the world revolves around their children and grandchildren, that feel lonely in their absence or when ignored. But they want the company of their family, not other elders!
Another reason given for sending elders to RCs and OAHs is that youngsters are free to pursue their career and lifestyle without being bogged down by the needs of elders living with them. ‘After all, they gave us higher education so that we may have a bright career,’ they say. Others feel it is payback time for the elders because they had left them in day care as children and pursued their own career. ‘They can’t expect us to care for them as well as for our children. They should be understanding,’ they argue.
The third reason is the nature of the Indian joint family set-up. By tradition this involves living with the parents of the son — the dreaded ‘in-laws’, while the wife’s parents are left to fend for themselves, if they don’t have a son. This is indeed very unfair especially since families with just girls are left in the lurch. Also, if the parents of the son have done so much for them to earn the privilege of living with them, so have the parents of the daughter. In many parts of northern India it is still considered ‘wrong’ to live with the daughter though this trend is slowly changing in the southern states.
While living with the son’s parents is deemed more difficult, it might not be easy to live with the daughter’s parents either. The one difference being that the daughter forgives and accepts her parents more readily. (Saw Piku, didn’t you?)
The main issue here is that it is hard for two or three generations to live together in this day and age with patience wearing thin, tolerance being low, tempers running high and tensions simmering just under the surface ready to burst out at the slightest strain. When I say this, it applies to both generations.
While all these reasons have their pluses and minuses, we come to the all-important reason — it is the norm in the west, as if that society has the answer to all social problems. It was a revelation for me to go through some of the stats and articles on the subject, one of which states that the number of adult caregivers in the US has actually risen in the last 15 years.
In 1994, only 3 percent of men and 9 percent of women helped provide basic care for a parent. Fifteen years later, 17 percent of men and 28 percent of women provided such care. (Source)
And some more stats from here:
- 7 million care-givers make up 29% of the U.S. adult population providing care to someone who is ill, disabled or aged.
- 5 million of adult family caregivers care for someone 50+ years of age and 14.9 million care for someone who has Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia.
- 52 million caregivers provide care to adults (aged 18+) with a disability or illness.
- Among the caregiving U.S. adult population 18+, approximately 72% are white; 13% are African-American. The percentage in the Hispanic community is only slightly lower, at 12%, and 2% for Asian-Americans.
So are we following the western model where a large percentage of white Americans are providing elder care, or the model set by Asians and other ethnic groups settled there?
Should elders then move into an OAH or RC when they reach the magical age of a ‘senior’? More importantly, how wise is it to uproot an elder from familiar surroundings to live in an OAH or RC just so that it makes their children feel better?
What if they are fit and active and are living happily in their own homes? Today many people work well beyond the official retirement age of 60, plus or minus, sometimes even into their 70s to make a living or for the pleasure of it. Others get into social work and community service. Women are as busy as the men are, with their own activities inside and outside the homes.
For active and independent elders the regimen of such a community, however relaxed, can be restrictive and claustrophobic. The familiar surroundings, their routines, their regular haunts and friends are not something that can be given up to retire to some far off RC, maybe in another city/state. After all, not everyone is looking for organized activities and a ‘resort-like-ambiance’ to amuse them or worse, a hostel-like regimen!
In the West, one can select senior homes and even nursing homes close to their family. This makes it easy for family to visit them periodically. But when they are persuaded to move to a far off RC or OAH, visits from their family gets few and far between. It will be one miserable elder who enters an OAH or RC, much like a reluctant child being sent to a boarding school.
Am I against OAHs and RCs? Certainly not. They serve an important need in the society but require a major overhaul and rethink to make it work for all strata of society.
What I would like for elders and children to do is to sit and discuss the pros and cons objectively and then take a call. How to bring around reluctant elders and children is best known to the families concerned. Even elders who willingly go to one expecting something they thought would be available might end up feeling lonely and miserable. And if they have invested everything they own in such a facility, they have burned their bridges so to speak. Most importantly, don’t go by the ads and guided tours of ‘happy’ seniors in such facilities. Check them out with the elders, ask around and then decide. Believe me, there are as many solutions for elder care as there are families and OAHs are not the only ones.
This is one of the things where one size doesn’t fit all. Think about it.
Why, even I have been doing some research (though the very mention of their name makes the kids mad). So what do I plan doing?
Homepage image courtesy: www.theguardian.com