THE SUNDAY STORY Longer life-spans, combined with families opting to have fewer children, have led to the elderly becoming a growing proportion of India’s population. A picture of the transition and its implications.

By 2050, India will be home to one out of every six of the world’s older persons, and only China will have a larger number of elderly people, according to estimates released by the United Nations Population Fund.

Thirty years ago, there were no “aged economies,” in which consumption by older people surpassed that of youth. In 2010, there were 23 aged economies. By 2040, there will be 89.

Japan is today the only country with more than 30 per cent of its population aged 60 or above. By 2050, there will be 64 countries where older people make up more than 30 per cent of the population.  In simple terms, within a decade there will be one billion older persons worldwide. And by 2050, nearly 80 per cent of the world’s older persons will live in developing countries — with China and India contributing to over one-third that number.  

A report released by the United Nations Population Fund and HelpAge India to mark the International Day of Older Persons — observed on October 1 — suggests that India had 90 million elderly persons in 2011, with the number expected to grow to 173 million by 2026. Of the 90 million seniors, 30 million are living alone, and 90 per cent work for livelihood.

The report says the number of elderly women is more than that of elderly men. Nearly three out of five single older women are very poor, and two out of three rural elderly women are fully dependants. There is also an increasing proportion of elderly at 80-plus ages, and this pattern is more pronounced among women.

The study, undertaken in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Orissa, West Bengal, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh by HelpAge, suggests that one-fifth of the elderly live alone. This proportion has registered a sharp increase in the past two decades and is more evident in the case of elderly women.

The housing data from Census 2011 also point out that the number of households has increased substantially in the last decade, and the number of persons per household has come down substantially. Declining fertility, migration and nuclearisation of families are three possible reasons for such reduction in household size.

Across the States, there is a substantial variation in the type of living arrangement, particularly in the proportion of elderly persons living alone. The percentage of those living alone or with spouse is as high as 45 per cent in Tamil Nadu, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab and Kerala. This indicates that with a demographic transition under way and youth migrating out for economic reasons, there will be a drastic change in the living arrangements of the elderly in rural and urban areas. The large segment of the elderly, those living alone or with spouse only, and the widowed who are illiterate, poor and particularly those from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe families, low wealth quintiles will definitely require various kinds of support: economic, social and psychological. These, at present, are woefully lacking.

The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment put in place the National Policy on Older Persons in 1999 with a view to addressing issues relating to aging in a comprehensive manner. But the programme failed at the implementation level. The Ministry is now formulating a new policy that is expected to address the concerns of the elderly. The idea is to help them live a productive and dignified life. There is a scheme of grant-in-aid of the Integrated Programme for Older Persons, under which financial assistance is provided to voluntary organisations for running and maintaining projects. These include old-age homes, day-care centres and physiotherapy clinics. While the scheme, indeed the concept, is still alien to India, the Ministry is considering the revision of cost norms for these projects, keeping in view the rising cost of living.

The most recent intervention has been the introduction of the National Programme for Health Care for Elderly in 2010, with the basic aim to provide separate and specialised comprehensive health care to senior citizens. The major components of this programme are establishing geriatric departments in eight regional geriatric centres and strengthening health care facilities for the elderly at various levels in 100 districts. Though the scheme is proposed to be expanded during the Twelfth Five Year Plan, the regional geriatric centres are yet to take off because of lack of space in the identified institutions.

The enactment of the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007, was a legislative milestone. However, its implementation has been poor.

With poor social security arrangements for the elderly, it is not surprising that around 37 million elderly in India are engaged in productive work, according to NSSO data for 2004-05. A majority of these workers are illiterate or have limited levels of education. Half the women elderly workers are from the two poorest consumption quintiles. This indicates that illiteracy and poverty push them to undertake work outside as a survival strategy, or out of compulsion.    

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