India’s Elderly – A Neglected Minority
Molkareen (Maid), a Marathi language film made in 1963 was about an impoverished widow abandoned by her son working incognito as a maid in his household, looking after the grandchild. In Baghbaan (Gardner) made four decades later, Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan expresses his anguish at being discarded by his sons and forced to live away from his wife: “Why is it that children who learnt to walk from parents are unwilling to lend them a hand in their old age?”
Some years back, a man who dispensed justice knocked at the doors of the same court. A retired Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, he and his wife sought eviction from home of their son and daughter-in-law.
Accusing them of “traumatizing” them and making their life “hell”, the old couple wanted that they move to another house, mind you, also built by the father. Probably first such case involving a judge, it embarrassed the court and hit media headlines. The son denied it all, saying some relations had misled his parents.
The court’s directing the police did not deter the son. On a fresh appeal, two retired judges and a senior lawyer were appointed to ensure that the petitioners got justice.
There are countless cases involving the sick and the aged being hounded by their young progeny. Times are a-changing in tradition-bound India. People still grow up respecting their elders. Feet-touching and respectful bowing of heads by the young is still the norm. But it hits the wall of the material and the mundane.
Woes of the aged are rising. The dispute is mostly over money and property, but also about who does what work at home, over what is ‘needed’ and what is a ‘luxury, relationship with other siblings and who pays medical bills of the old.
Lack of social welfare schemes make the old more vulnerable. The young often eye pension money, savings and the family heirloom and await, impatiently, for the old parents to ‘go’. Of the two, the survivor becomes most vulnerable.
Migration for work, globalisation and fast urbanization are contributing to joint families going nuclear and to changing of values. Yet, the latest data shows that to survive, more and more aged are having to depend upon the young.
More than four in five older Indians live in multi-generational households with their children. But surveys find that the share of older Indians living with only a spouse or alone doubled between the early 1990s and the mid-2000s.
Within a household’s shrinking space where two or three generations live together, the old are pushed to small rooms or outhouses to make way for the younger members, be it study space for the young or privacy of the just-married. Or, as Baghbaan depicts, they are separated.
Unable to keep pace with the young, the old must accommodate and adjust. They face emotional blackmail of being denied support of the children and affection of the grandchildren to whom they are attached.
Old people are increasingly unwanted at home. The era of grandma’s tale that educated and entertained the kids is fading. Mother is needed, but as a glorified nanny when the daughter/daughter-in-law is expecting. Grandparents are needed when that child goes to school and needs minding while parents are away to work.
They are needed as tutors too. Times of India recently reported that a grandfather, on arriving in a limousine at the office of HelpAge India, a non-government organization, broke down. His son had slapped him seven times because the child had failed despite the granddad’s coaching.
With better health facilities available and life expectancy rising, the aged live longer. The age of retirement has been raised from 60 to 62. But the aged must work longer and retire late for want of pension, family support, healthcare and even shelter. When it comes to products like hearing aids, eye lenses or wheelchairs, most available in India are imported, and hence, expensive. Struck with serious ailment, the old resign to their ‘fate’ rather than burden the young.
Take the growing trend of senior citizens’ homes. This small, privileged section of society is not waiting for the next generation to plan anything for them; they have already planned their own old age, choosing the destination and the company in which they want to spend their grown-up years.
But it gets lonely there with nobody to talk to. The aged are dumped, among others, by Indians settled abroad. Funds are paid, but no visiting; only video-calls. In some cases, they are just informed when the old die.
In a youth-obsessed media and start-up space, one rarely sees initiatives focused on the elderly, be it for their travel requirements, social and lifestyle needs, or tapping into their experience.
The world is getting smaller with easier travel, instant communication and with social media. This means we have family and friends around the world, but maybe, none close to us to take care of us in our old age.
A ‘young’ India has over a half of its 1.2 billion below the age of 25 and over 65 percent below 35. While China, Japan and many other nations face an aging demographic profile, the youth segment of India’s population is growing rapidly, and is projected to continue to do so for the next 30 years.
Over the next four decades, India’s 60-plus population is projected to increase dramatically from eight percent in 2010 to 19 percent by 2050, according to the United Nations Population Division. It rose from 10.9 percent in 1961 to 14.2 percent in 2011 and is projected to increase to 15.7 percent and 20.1 percent in 2021 and 2031, respectively.
There will be more women survivors than men as per National Statistical Organisation (NSO) figures. They could be more vulnerable, given India’s patriarchal traditions.
By mid-century, this age group will be 323 million people, a figure larger than the current population of the United States.
Like India, China, too, must face this. According to the UN report on “ageing in the 21st century”, by 2050, India and China will have about 80 percent of the world’s elderly.
And India is likely to pip China in the number of centenarians. Already, India is home to between 11,000 and 20,000 centenarians. It is set to rocket to anywhere between 151,000 and 620,000 by the year 2050.
Wonder where the traditional elder’s blessing, “may you live a hundred years” has led to.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org