SPEAKING FREELY India cuts its elderly adrift
By Samir Nazareth
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
The process of aging has been explored in many movies. In India, Bhagbhan starring Amitabh Bachan and Hema Malini comes to mind. Although this Bollywood flick was full of sentimentality and emotion, it touched on one aspect of the main challenges aging creates – dependence on others.
Two Hollywood movies in 2012 had a different take on this. The
leading men of The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall were portrayed as virile and savvy yet suddenly aware of their mortality. It was as if Batman and James Bond had suddenly realized that they were human and in time will grow old. While 007 in Skyfall was shown as a technophobe with grey stubble, Bruce Wayne was ravaged by pummeling fist-fights in his struggle to protect Gotham City.
While both movies focussed on these two men trying to come to terms with the sudden constrictions in their abilities due to age, the director also introduced younger alter egos. The new Q in Skyfall is a cocky young man who thinks that the brave new world is no place for the likes of James Bond. Batman, meanwhile, unmasks himself to a young police officer who may become the Robin in coming movies.
Both these young men make mistakes which jeopardize the safety of the oldies and others, but the new "senior citizens" take the bungling of their younger colleagues in their stride. Here, there is a message to everyone - no matter how old someone is, their years of experience still make them relevant. This is something Baghban explores.
Old age is no longer what it used to be. The concepts from Indian philosophy of vanprastha (a forest-dwelling Hindu hermit) and sannyasa (monks or devotees) are no longer relevant or viable in today's life. The elderly are living longer and also independently within society.
This not only means that they need to keep themselves occupied to remain physically fit and mentally agile, they also have to bear the same expenses that many employed youngsters face. In the year 2000, people over 65 represented 12.4% of the world's population, a number expected to swell to 19% by 2030.
A paper entitled "The Living Arrangements of the Elderly in India" released in 2011 noted that the number of elderly living alone in India had increased from 2.4% of the population in 1995 to 5% in 2006, and those living with a spouse had risen from 6.6% to 13.7%.
Some of the major problems faced by the elderly in India include loneliness, health, income, safety and infrastructure.
Though there are similarities in the situation in the West, much has been done to alleviate the problems there. Loneliness includes many issues, one being a lack of mobility, another is inability to form peer groups and inaccessibility to younger people - who are busy. Loneliness also has an effect on the health of the elderly because socialization levels impact on mental and physical activity.
After retirement, incomes drop while expenses increase - not only because of inflation but also because the needs at this age increases. Such situations could result in a decrease in the ability of the elderly to take care of themselves.
In India, it is very easily discernible that there is insufficient infrastructure to help the elderly maintain a life as fruitful as when they were young. There is a lack of facilities to provide safe mobility through accessible footpaths, ramps and elevators in public areas; limited access to public transport are an impediments for the aged. Within residences the possibility of a fall because of loss of balance or a blackout is another constant worry.
There can be no homogeneity in the way the issues faced by the elderly can be addressed. It would be important to mention that the generic term "elderly" hides a diverse population segmented by sex, education, economies and geographies (rural/urban). Therefore the issues raised above, though similar, would need to be answered in different ways for each segment.
Much has been written about the cost of being old and whether the aged are a burden to the economy. These are fallacious arguments that do not appreciate the fact that in all probability this is one of the first generations of elderly who are living alone in India and are still mentally and physically "agile".
The family unit that supported the elderly earlier is no longer available. Thus India as a society and as a government are coming to terms with a large population who have special needs on the one hand but can still be part of the "workforce" and economy.
Therefore, as policies are implemented to make modern India more productive, we need similar thinking to ensure citizens remain socially, and even economically, active when they grow old.
Though the government has schemes for the elderly like mobile clinics and pension schemes, and banks give higher interest rates for fixed deposits for those above a certain age, much more can be done. The goal behind any such endeavor is to ensure the continued involvement of the elderly in society.
It is important that both society and the government work together to create platforms that utilize the time and skills of the elderly. These platforms have benefits that extend to the rest of society - for example the concept of neighborhood creches overseen by those 60 and above, for children of working parents would be a boon. Another could be the retired overseeing the proper functioning of government schemes like mid-day meals, community clinics and other welfare programs. These would use the skills of the elderly and can provide them with a source of income too.
We have heard and read of the tragedy of the poisoned mid day meal that killed innocent school children in Bihar. The supply of sub-standard food in schools can be minimized by the induction of the elderly to check the quality of provisions and food served.
An annual survey conducted on the quality of food served in schools under the mid-day meal scheme, in India, found that 50 out of 288 samples of meals sampled failed to meet the minimum standards, in 2011-12 it was 95 per cent and it was 99 per cent in 2010-11. One could argue that there has been an improvement, but with such a slow pace of change our future generations are going to be both mentally and physically weak.
To ensure that quality meals are served to children there has to be community involvement, this need not be only through parents, it should extend to those residing around the schools. Most government and municipal schools have residential colonies in close proximity.
The government could invite retirees to maintain a close watch on the quality of provisions and meals served. The Delhi government already has a Bhagidari scheme (a people's partnership to promote participation in local governance); it needs to extend this to involve the retired population and schools. If our politicians rule the country into their 80s, why can't people in this age bracket use their skills to benefit themselves and society?
Finding a productive way to use time is just one side of the coin. There is need to provide a healthcare system dedicated to the aged. For example, an elderly patient finds it difficult to remember the number of medications to be taken and the dosage; giving them a variety of pills for various ailments can decrease the efficacy of the medication because of haphazard intake, it also increases the stress levels of the elderly as they try to remember the dosage.
Lack of proper medication for the elderly can lead to accidents in other environments. Then there are issues of doctor's appointments, physiotherapy, all of which form part of the elderly's routine. Unfortunately, geriatric care in India is rare and expensive.
The elderly are also easy targets for thieves and cheats. Fortunately, there are safety initiatives undertaken by the government. For example in Delhi, I have been told by my elderly neighbors that the Police visit them routinely to check on them - this is a good initiative and should be replicated across the nation.
Advancement in medicine has increased our life span and changed the definition of wellbeing of the elderly, however we as a society have not yet come to terms with the outcomes. This may be due to our traditional values that suggest the elderly should wash their hands of the humdrum of daily life and allow a new generation to take over.
This could be the reason why the concept of geriatric care is almost non-existent in India. The need to find ways to care for the elderly - mentally and physically - and include them in everyday life is important for us as a society. Today, age and ability no longer have a simple correlation and this is the crux of the dilemma faced by us.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Samir Nazareth is a commentator based in India. He is the author of the upcoming travelogue 1400 Bananas, 76 Towns and 1 Million People and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org