The Series | 4 Stories

Challenge of ageing with dignity

India’s rapidly ageing population may soon outweigh the demographic dividend of a young workforce. Unless attitudes towards the elderly improve and the government increases resources for their care, India is staring at the prospect of a generational socioeconomic crisis. This is the first of a four-part series

February 18, 2017 11:05 pm | Updated February 19, 2017 03:10 am IST - Chennai/Krishnagiri

Greying prospects:  An old man on a railway platform in Hosur.  N. Bashkaran

Greying prospects: An old man on a railway platform in Hosur. N. Bashkaran

The New Life Home for senior citizens in Krishnagiri is a refuge for those among the elderly who have run out of options in life.

Govindammal (75), was rescued less than two kilometres from the home, from a cattle pen on a tiny plot of land owned by her son and daughter-in-law. “We found her emaciated. We doubted if she would survive then,” said Uma Maheshwari, a supervisor at the home.

During the first four months after Govindammal moved in, her daughter-in-law visited once a month to collect her old age pension of Rs. 1,000. But soon, when her pensions stopped coming in, so too did those purposeful visits.

“At least she came, the son never visited once,” says Ms.Maheshwari.

In another the corner of the home, 80-year-old Velu Chettiar was busy wrapping home-made semiya in small packets. He would go out and sell them door-to-door, making Rs.2 for every packet that he sold for Rs.10.

The supervisors fondly call him the “semiya thatha.” Velu Chettiar’s story though, is riven with harsh realities: he walked out on his sons after being slighted by them, is all he will reveal. The volunteers from the home found him packing semiya under a candle light in the bus stand. “I wasn’t given food, and I wasn’t allowed to sell semiya too. So, I got out,” Velu Chettiar says, with pride.

Ageing population

These are common stories among the growing cohort of elderly Indians, even more so among the destitute population. While India still has a demographic distribution that is still relatively skewed toward the youth, compared to developed countries, its population is ageing fast.

By some estimates approximately 20% of Indians will be elderly by 2050, defined as aged 60 years and above, marking a dramatic jump from the 6% level that the figure is at now.

Combined with the fact that we already have the second largest elderly population in the world, such projections beg the question of how the country’s nascent infrastructure and traditional social values will cope with the enormous stress that is likely to come from the need to provide for our senior citizens’ welfare.

In a sense our attitudes toward the elderly, which in many cases deny them a life of dignity in their twilight years, pose as much a challenge as the economic conundrums of ensuring they receive quality healthcare and accommodation.

Those who move from the world of active work to a retired life, often with dependencies upon family members, face numerous uncertainties and sometimes a harsh reality of deprivation.

Among them, senior citizens fortunate enough to have worked in the organised sector receive pension and other retirement benefits after retiring at between 60 and 65 years of age, yet for the others the only succour is the nominal old-age pension coverage provided by the Government of India and State Governments.

Govt. interventions

Among these the Central Government has since 1992 been implementing its Integrated Programme for Older Persons, which aims to provide senior citizens with basic amenities such as shelter, food, medical care and entertainment opportunities.

Perhaps the most relevant policy for the poorer sections amongst the elderly is the Ministry of Rural Development’s Indira Gandhi Old Age Pension Scheme. This ensures for below poverty line households, a monthly pension of Rs.200 is given for each person in the age group of 60-79 years and Rs. 500 for those above 80 years and above.

Various other Government of India ministries offer concessions and similar schemes that promote access to resources by the elderly, including the Ministries of Health and Family Welfare, Finance, and Departments of Revenue, Railways, and Civil Aviation. While most of these initiatives look good on paper, reality can sometimes be less encouraging. In the Krishnagiri home around 11 of the 13 women and men in New Life home were rescued from within a 3-kilometer radius of the main town, yet there is not one government run home in the district.

Gender differences can also cut both ways among the elderly in India. At the New Life Home Malliga, a volunteer, says that in many families the younger generation seems inclined to keep elderly mothers at home to take care of the grandchildren or do household chores; yet they are less inclined to keep fathers.

Paradoxically, women sometimes end up worse off because in many of the patriarchal-patrilineal families especially in rural areas, the responsibility for care and nurture falls to the women of the family, which in turn has cast women both as victims and perpetrators of abandonment. As long as women’s leisure-less labour freed men of any such responsibility towards aged members of the household, men’s workplaces and the government establishment could afford to plod on in the same patriarchal modes.

Yet as women’s roles have in recent years expanded outside of home-making there has not been an accompanying recognition that men would now have to play a larger role in caring for the aged than they used to, and that men’s workplaces and the government subsidy systems would have to do more to support this.

Changing attitudes

Looking beyond these structural factors, an attitudinal shift may be necessary to mitigate the neglect, abuse and violence faced by the elderly in India.

These usually stem from the perception of senior citizens as not deserving of respect and dignity, as vulnerable targets for predation for financial or other needs, or simply as a burden that can be shrugged off.

This is particularly true in rural India. In Krishnagiri income insecurity, migration and displacement for work, smaller tenements, and lack of tangible State social security infrastructure seemed to be feeding into a collective compassion deficit.

While accounts of neglect varied there, it was evident that many among the elderly yearned for families and to play a role in their lives by way of care and nurture for their grandchildren. Others hoped to lead lives that offered respect and independence, and wanted to get away when it was denied.

From a policy perspective it remains a concern that the framing of state intervention for senior citizens in terms of familial care and neglect results in the exclusion of destitute persons.

“The State sees them as destitutes, beggars and not as senior citizens who were abandoned and in need of care.” says Revathi Mohan, the trustee of Narendra Nambikkai Natchathiram, an integrated home for children and destitute old women in Hosur, about 57 kilometers from Krishnagiri. Hence, these government-supported homes are not encouraged to rescue the poor among the elderly, who inevitably get pushed to beggary on the streets.

Top News Today


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.