PROF. RAMEEZA A. RASHEED

The solution to the problem may lie in joining homes for elders or forums modelled on those existing abroad

The reduction in fertility level, reinforced by a steady increase in life expectancy, has produced fundamental changes in the age structure of the population. This, in turn, leads to the ageing population. The older population of India, which was 56.7 million in 1991, was 72 million in 2001 and is expected to grow to 137 million by 2021. Today, India is home to one out of every 10 senior citizens of the world. Since the number is big their problems are worth discussing.

Senior citizens face three serious problems. They are poverty, disease and loneliness. An emotional and psychological problem tormenting the elders is loneliness. This is due to the growing “empty nest syndrome”. The children go away to far-off countries in search of economic betterment. Even if they live within the country, due to the spread of western ideas such as “spacing, privacy, individualism and non-interference,” the nuclear families are becoming the norm even in villages. Love marriages have further aggravated the breakup of the joint family system. Even within joint families, the elders feel lonely owing to the denial of due respect, concern and care by youngsters. The younger generation generally lacks sensitivity towards elders' need for emotional support. All these factors have contributed to the psychological trauma called “loneliness”.

The elders suffer extreme loneliness, not having anybody to share their thoughts or the burden of day-to-day management. In the cities, neighbourhood friendships are rare and relatives and friends are busy with their own lives. Phone calls and visits become rare. Under these circumstances, the ‘living alone' elders have no option except to rely on television, books and computer and the telephone; sometimes, to keep themselves engaged, some people resort to hobbies or do community service or take to freelance writing or blogging. In spite of the efforts to engage themselves fully, when they are left alone without any human contact day after day, week after week, the senior citizens become depressed, especially when they recollect their productive past and their sacrifices for the family and compare them with the destitute-like situation which they are pushed into. Then they decide that there is no purpose in living because, “to be forgotten by everybody is worse than death.” When such thoughts affect them deeply, a prolonged life becomes deadweight and not a blessing.

They also get depressed with the burden of single-handedly managing matters related to food, medical care, household work, security, finance, transportation, servants and repairs in a country like India where the support facilities are highly inadequate. There are also growing incidents of attack on elders when they rely on strangers for certain services. They dread to think of facing their last moments alone. In a world so fearful of old age, there may be not be anyone physically close enough who recognises the symptoms and can help them.

The solution to the problem of loneliness may lie in the elders joining senior citizen homes. But in India, these homes are not run satisfactorily. Private homes are run on profit motive and have hostel like restrictions and the free ones are run in a deplorable manner — hence these are the last option.

Another solution is to join senior citizens' forums, so that their psychological need for social networking to fight loneliness will be met. They think it will put an end to the monotony in life through interactive programmes and new friendship developing resulting in caring and sharing.

But in India, they are all working like trade unions, always discussing, drafting and presenting charters of demands to the government. They work as watertight compartments, and hence their voice is not heard by the authorities. They usually specialise in conducting health awareness programmes and arrange for a talk by doctors once a month followed by a question and answer session. Meeting after meeting, the same questions and answers are repeated. Members disperse without any interaction with others and with more worries about their health. There is no programme to relax their mind or to promote interaction and friendliness. Another peculiar feature of the Indian senior citizen forums is the total absence of women.

In contrast, look at the working style of a foreign senior citizen forum. I happened to participate in one such meeting. I was informed that they conduct six programmes each month for members. They are lunch or dinner in a centrally-located hotel, a picnic to a nearby place, a cultural event, a visit to a senior citizens' home or the geriatric ward in a hospital to talk to the patients, awareness programmes on health, safety and security, the use of pets for assistance, investment priorities, insurance facilities, legal matters and preparation of will, etc., and finally, a book circulation programme.

I was much impressed with the way it works. Members bring all their used books, magazines, DVDs and cassettes on an allotted day in a month and exchange them among themselves; each one of them maintains a diary to note down the details of the exchanges and thus there is an endless circulation of books and DVDs. This programme has helped the seniors get access to a very good source of knowledge and relaxation in the most economic manner and facilitated interaction with the other members.

The compatibles among them become close friends and this friendship is extended to the family level too. Thus, the lonely seniors gain family friends and effective social networking is the final result. Such friends turn into supporting groups and help each other. This model is worth emulating by the senior citizen forums in India.

(The author can be contacted at: rameezarasheed @gmail.com)

More In: OPEN PAGE | FEATURES