The trouble with ageing is that it is inevitable. The truth about ageing in India is that we have not yet built an adequate knowledge base to respond to its multifarious challenges. So says the United Nations Population Fund in its recently released Report on the Status of Elderly in Select States of India. The focus of the study is on the seven States where the aged population is larger than the national average. These are Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra, Odisha, West Bengal, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. Three-fourths of the elderly in India live in rural areas and bear the brunt of poverty, illiteracy, income insecurity and inadequate health care. Sixty per cent of them are currently married and over 75 per cent live with at least one of their children. But widowhood is over 50 per cent among women, reflecting greater longevity among females and gender-specific concerns that arise on account of ageing. The survey also reports high levels of substance abuse, with no significant variations between rural and urban areas. On average, there is equal reliance on public and private health care facilities, while in Odisha and Punjab respectively, there is noticeably greater dependence on public and private care. The economic burden incurred by the elderly to make provision for health care is compounded by the fact that most of them have to work to make ends meet and enjoy no social protection to speak of.
There are major lessons from the survey for the rest of India. After all, the proportion of the segment aged 60 years and above is projected to grow by 360 per cent by 2050, compared with a mere 60 per cent rate of increase in the overall population — a product of the decline in fertility rates and the increase in longevity. A rapid rise in the numbers of the elderly would impose additional responsibilities on an ever-shrinking population in the working age and raise fresh social challenges in the context of the ongoing nuclearisation of India’s traditional joint family. In western countries, economic development and accompanying socio-political advancement preceded population ageing, enabling better planning. India, as with other developing countries, finds itself having to balance the concerns of the elderly into its current growth imperatives. Conversely, investments in sound social protection and public health and welfare policies for the country’s predominant population under 35 years would prove a most effective strategy to prepare communities to meet the unfolding transition in the coming decades. Short of such a proactive approach, there is a real risk of allowing today’s demographic advantage to turn into tomorrow’s adversity.