Another World Elder Abuse Awareness Day comes up today, even as a steady stream of reports of elders being denied care and aid, indeed abused and attacked, comes in from different parts of India. The problems of the elderly are primarily economic, marked by the loss of independent incomes. Health-related problems typically dog them too. Lack of safety and security are added perils, especially in urban settings. Pan-India surveys have revealed that almost 30 per cent of the elderly are subjected to some form of abuse or neglect, abandonment, and physical, financial or emotional abuse, often by their own family members. Many are left lonely. Yet, the absence of detailed data on crimes against the elderly in official compilations is striking, and points to inadequate focus on the issue. With improvement in life expectancy, the number of seniors in India is expected to reach 177 million in the next 25 years and 324 million by 2050 — and women will constitute a majority of that cohort. By 2050, the global population of seniors above 60 is set to exceed the number of younger people. The challenges posed by an ageing population are clearly upon us.

The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007, placed a legal obligation on children and relatives to enable the elderly to live a normal and dignified life. Senior citizens who are unable to maintain themselves financially shall have the right to apply to a maintenance tribunal for an allowance from their children and relatives. The tribunal may initiate the process suo motu . The Act also has provisions to ensure the state takes care of them, but in practical terms these are hardly of any help. Overall, this legislation is too narrow and ineffective to serve as the primary legal channel for guaranteeing the rights of the elderly. India now needs to set new priorities as its demographic profile undergoes a rapid change. It ought to put in place a comprehensive policy and programme interventions for older persons. Meanwhile, free healthcare, more old age homes, other kinds of affordable housing, and financial assistance in the form of pension and other payouts, especially to widows, have to be provided for. The right of an elderly citizen to live a life of dignity must be made justiciable. Programmes to enhance skills and knowledge in geriatric care are needed. According priority to the needs of senior citizens in development plans, including in infrastructure facilities, is essential. It is time separate ministries at the Central and State levels were set up to deal with issues concerning senior citizens. The government has a responsibility to protect the elderly and must take this job seriously.