For decades, I am observing my mother growing old. 3 memories, 3 falls stay in my mind. The first fall was on the streets of Kolkata and that made her housebound after she fractured her hip and had to have surgery. Fortunately, it was a big house in Kolkata and there was plenty of space to move around but gone were the shopping trips to the nearby Gariahat Market or the Post Office. Evenings meant sitting around the television set with her sister in law and watching Bengali serials. Then after her sister in law passed away, the house in Kolkata , once was a bustling home nurturing at least 3 or 4 generations in its history, was sold and my mom moved in me in a comparatively small 3 bed room flat in Delhi.
That was a turning point. In Kolkata, though she was house bound, friends, neighbours, relatives, nephews and nieces would drop in now and then and provide companionship. In the gated community of Delhi, there was no one she knew and though she enjoyed her walks in the compound, her companions were now her books and the TV set. Even us, the immediate family could spare little time. Then came the second fall in the bathroom followed by a broken arm and another surgery. That shook her confidence in her mobility, and the walks in the compound stopped. Books and TV were the only companion left.
A year or so later came the 3rd fall, resulting in some head injury and impacting the optic nerve and impacting her already fading eyesight and rendering her nearly blind. Now the books were gone but the TV set remained. Two new additions in her life – adult diaper and the care giver, initially on weekends, then in a 12-hour shift, and finally a 24-hour full-time care giver. The clatter of shoes and slippers were replaced with the squeaking of the wheelchair.
Why am I sharing all this? The percentage of elderly people, classified as those above 60 years of age, is expected to go up in India from 8% in 2015 to 19 % in 2050. The country now faces the major challenge of how to take care of such a large population of senior citizens – whose number is set to grow three-fold from around 100 million at present to 300 million by 2050. This challenge has been highlighted in a report released by UN Population Fund India titled ‘Caring for our elders: Early response India Ageing Report 2017’. The report observes that the section that deserves maximum attention remains old women, who are more vulnerable than men due to their longer life expectancy and meagre or no income.
Of course, other countries are observing similar demographic trends. But the swiftly ageing population is a matter of concern for India for two reasons. Firstly, our attitude in India towards the elderly is changing. Though our traditional virtue requires children to care for their parents, nuclear families have little time or resources for their ailing parents. In my own case, with no cousins or any kind of extended family in view, the care is left to a full-time care giver who can deliver physical care by not emotional care and mitigate loneliness who is practically blind and is also slowly losing her hearing. Increased migration from rural areas also forces the children must leave their elders alone back home. Double income families mean that women, the traditional care givers are also no longer available. Finances are stretched and healthcare expensive. Worse, nearly 90 per cent of the elderly worked in the informal sector and do not receive social security coverage, like pension and Mediclaim, post retirement.
Several governments in India have put together many programmes and policies for the welfare of senior citizens. The benefits do not reach the elderly. Many of them are forced to live alone or to move into old age homes to spend the rest of their lives. The Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme has remained at a meagre Rs.200 per month for persons above 65 years and Rs.500 per month for persons above 80 years belonging to households below the poverty line for years.
A humane and comprehensive social security programme for senior citizens is critical. Local self-governments can frame projects to identify all the elderly in their area regardless of their social and financial background. Years of economic progress and human development have improved the quality of lives and have added more years to the life expectancy of Indians. Our senior citizens should be able to enjoy these additional years.
Shantanu Dutta is a Former Air Force Doctor and is a development worker for the last 25 years.