Had Mark Twain lived in India and experienced the travails of senior citizens, he would have rephrased his words on a positive frame of mind. His quote, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter,” would have been revised as “Age does matter over mind, if you don’t mind you are in trouble” in India.
In fact, there is a sense of pity and anxiety the moment people retire from active service and are dismissed as old fossil in a maddening race for money, fame, and name. They allow the near and dear to grab as much wealth as possible. They also realise that in this unpredictable lifestyle they may not even live to see the brighter morrow to throw away money as they like, yet they chase that cushy bank balance which could see them through their unexplored post-retirement life.
According to the State of World Population 2019 report recently released by the United Nations Population Fund, currently 6 per cent of the population in India comprises the elderly, i.e. 60-plus persons. It has projected that the proportion is likely to increase to 20 per cent by 2050. This calls for a serious discussion to initiate a process of social reconstruction, since only policies are not going to bear fruit.
It has been observed that the wellbeing and care of the elderly population, especially in India, is more of a social than a legal or administrative issue. Unlike the West, Indian society has had a tradition of placing primacy upon the ‘parent-child’ unit within the family, instead of the ‘spousal’ relationship.
Therefore, parents invest enormously in their children, both financially and socially/psychologically, with an expectation that they would be looked after by them in their old age. The parent-child relationship is considered a private affair, and even in cases of extreme harassment by one’s children, parents find it socially unacceptable to take the legal recourse. That is why the number of cases filed by parents against children under the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007, is extremely low.
Average parents keep on bearing the indifference and even misbehaviour of their children silently to avoid the social stigma. Many elderly couples boast of how well they are taken care of by their children since that serves as a status symbol. That is why, barring a section among the urban upper middle classes, it is considered a social stigma to move to an old age home while children are around.
The absence of any social security system often makes the family the only support system in old age. It is a daunting task for elderly persons, especially when frail and unwell, and when they are living alone, to access the healthcare system, despite various concessions and facilities made available to them. The problem is more severe for elderly women due to their greater dependence ~ financial, physical and social ~ and they generally have little access to health and other services available to senior citizens.
In a research study, it was found that elderly women were found to be incapable of moving to the bank to get their old-age pension due to their physical immobility and dependence upon younger members in the family, who often took a large chunk of the money in return for the favour of taking them to the bank.
Probably the most relevant factor that aggravates the problems of the elderly is their overindulgence in children, so much so that once the children leave for greener pastures, parents are left with no purpose in life, no hobbies, no life without children. They keep waiting for telephone calls from the children, who are miles apart, busy in their own professional and personal lives, and, as a result, a large proportion among them end up with severe depression and isolation.
Many studies conducted on the elderly in India have indicated that more than 30 per cent of the elderly suffer from fear of fall (FoF) and, thus, are physically and mentally vulnerable. Studies also confirm a higher incidence of verbal abuse among the elderly by their young relatives and neighbours.
The government has a Ministry for Women and Child Development and another one for Youth Affairs and Sports. And that is just great since all these segments need special care. But senior citizens don’t have any such luck. Their affairs are clubbed in a division under the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment. In 1999, a National Policy on Older Persons (NPOP), was framed which envisaged State support to ensure financial and food security, healthcare, shelter and other needs of older persons. The less said about the implementation of that policy the better.
During the pandemic, the lives of the less-privileged elderly have been torn asunder, with even the simplest of chores becoming a challenge. In most cases, they got little help from the state. Perhaps it is a matter of prioritising and allocating scarce resources for the most productive members of society. In a country where 61 per cent of the population is in the working-age group of 15-59 years while 27 per cent are children in the age group 0-14 years, those are the cohorts which will find favour with the planners. But India isn’t going to be a young population for too long.
The country’s 60+ population is growing at around 3 per cent every year and will rise to 319 million in 2050 representing 19.5 per cent of the total population, according to the Longitudinal Ageing Study of India (LASI). With hardly any social security net to take care of them, it is building up to a crisis of monumental proportions. With the breakdown of the traditional joint family system, many older people now lead lonely lives away from their children, even if they are lucky to have any in the first place.
A retirement age of 58 in most cases means that old age woes begin early and continue for decades. Postretiral benefits in the private sector are non-existent, making living in the metros virtually impossible. Products specially tailored to the needs of older people don’t exist in most categories. The poor infrastructure compounds that. Thus, it is difficult to get an ergonomically-designed walker at a reasonable price.
Combined with the poor state of the streets, it forces older people with some infirmities to mostly stay indoors. In the rare instance that there is a park in the vicinity, older people out for a walk have to contend with street dogs and strategically placed hurdles. Health insurance policies too mostly centre around hospitalisation. Few cater to older people’s need for regular visits to doctors for treatment or even check-ups. Hospitals play their part in perpetuating this callousness.
The insistence on an attendant to accompany a patient who is there to take an injection is both emotionally and materially cruel. The underlying aim is understandable. But where does it leave an older person who doesn’t have an attendant to bring along? In the absence of any social security system, the elderly primarily depend upon their family members, whether living with them or away. However, this expectation from the younger generation is proving to be a farce as parents are no longer preparing their children as caregivers, and hence the contradiction.
The family today makes a huge investment, financially, psychologically and socially, both for sons and daughters in order to ensure a good career for them, providing them with comforts. Unlike our generation, wherein children were made to participate in the household and social activities, the children today are ‘not disturbed’ and are encouraged to enjoy their ‘privacy’ till they complete their education and adopt a career. While parents pamper the children, the market and media join in injecting a kind of individualism with a high dose of indulgence towards self-pampering.
Consumerism thrives on this new-found sense of ‘freedom’, however pseudo it might be, resulting in a generation that has never been trained to ‘give care’ by sacrificing their own comfort, career or ambitions. It would, however, be inappropriate to blame our young children because the onus lies on us as their parents and teachers. We define ‘success’ for them; we train them to always be ‘ahead’ of others; we send them away so that they can earn status, money and success for themselves and for us. We forget that they would not be in a position to return when we need them. It is not possible to ‘eat the cake and have it too’.
The social isolation and depression among the elderly needs to be handled with a two-pronged strategy: One, the spousal unit has to be prioritised so that even after children are gone, one ‘enjoys’ life being together. It is fascinating to watch elderly couples in the West, travelling, drinking, moving around together, and enjoying life. Why is it that our sense of humour gets wiped out as we grow old? After all, why should it be considered a sin, particularly for elderly women, to be enjoying their hard-earned freedom after having completed their family responsibilities?
Secondly, our children must be trained to be ‘care-givers’ so that like their parents and grandparents, they too are capable of keeping a balance between their own life and that of their elderly parents, ready to sacrifice a bit of their ‘success’, ‘time’ and ‘affection’. Rather than letting the media and market teach them, our children must receive the first lessons of ‘individualism’ and ‘freedom’ from us ~ parents and teachers ~ so that they understand how self-destructive ‘privacy’ can be in the long run.
(The writer is with Eastern Institute for Integrated Learning in Management, Kolkata)