The Problem

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‘An old man loved is winter with flowers’ (old German proverb).* To a society and culture that has long prided itself in its veneration of the elderly (witness the popularity of the Shravan Kumar story), the existential reality of the aged may come as a surprise. Our older citizens, on a daily basis, are reminded both of their expendability as also of the deepening coarseness society displays towards them. Be it the way they are treated within the family, the woeful inadequacy of healthcare provisions directed towards the old, and above all the increasing incidence of the violence they face – it is evident that modern Indian society is ill-prepared to meet the challenges posed by the greying of its population.

A part of this problem can be traced to material scarcities. Most societies, the poorer ones even more so, find it difficult to set aside scarce resources to take care of the elderly. Given the widespread application of the framework of triage, the elderly and infirm are invariably passed over in favour of those classified as productive and useful. But equally, the problem lies in the fetishization of youth. Modern industrial and post industrial cultures foreground the vitality and energy of the young as against the wisdom and experience of the old. And even though we have yet to approximate the western obsession with remaining young, we are clearly getting there.

It is likely that in earlier times ageing as a social problem did not preoccupy societies. Life expectancy was in any case low. Since only a few survived for long years, it was easier to either venerate them as repositories of wisdom and tradition or create social mechanisms which encouraged the aged to step away from the management of everyday concerns. The notions of vanaprastha and sanyasa probably evolved as a response to the need of displacing the old.

With an increasing proportion of our population living for ever longer years, we are now confronted with the problem of not knowing what to do with our elderly citizens. Simultaneously, our senior citizens too are challenged by how to creatively and usefully occupy themselves, and that in a society which displays little patience for the old. The joint family, long held out as our answer to this problem, is neither as widespread as popularly believed, nor does it seem capable of accommodating the pressures created by the demands of a modern urban and industrialized lifestyle.

If honourable living within a joint, multi-generational family has become difficult, a dignified separate existence too is not easy. Be it ensuring economic and physical security or accessing basic services, including healthcare, everyday living often creates trauma for our elderly. Far worse is the expression of societal neglect and unconcern. Increasingly pushed into mining their own resources, both economic and emotional, the aged are increasingly thrown into their own age cohorts, a process that can only strengthen feelings of alienation.

Such at least is the picture presented in our mass media or through the popular soaps and films. Even the more sensitive Bollywood productions, Saransh or 36 Chowringhee Lane, paint the elderly protagonists as somewhat feeble and helpless, unable to bring joy and meaning into their lives without an active association with the young. Just take an early morning walk and listen to the conversation of the old. It is either full of pride about successful children or, more frequently, about how they are treated within the household. The speech is marked by anguish and insecurity. Little wonder that so many older people are unwilling to settle their property matters, fearful that in the absence of economic resources they may be forced to move out.

Those who live on their own, a phenomenon now fairly widespread, are obsessed with issues of physical security, not surprising given the incidence of crimes targeting the old. The difficulties they face in accessing basic services – from medical to recreational – are legion. Over riding all these is a feeling of loneliness and worthlessness.

Unfortunately, detailed research on the aged is hard to come by. For a start, even basic demographic data is only now being subject to detailed analysis. In the absence of indepth anthropological studies on the joint family system, both regionally and for different socio-cultural groups, we continue to believe in its resilience. We need to map out how our aged live – within joint families, alone, in ashrams or old age homes, where? Why is it that institutional care for the elderly – be it day care centres or residential homes – is more widespread in the West and South rather than the North. And above all, we need to improve our understanding of the non-urban middle class world. Far too often, both our understanding and consequent policy recommendations are overly conditioned by our middle class worldview.

In particular, we need to direct our attention towards the special problems faced by old women, more so widows. Except when controversies of the kind generated by the filming of Water arise, as a society we remain supremely unconcerned about their fate. In urban, middle class households they are reduced to the level of unpaid help; in rural and tribal society they are left to fend for themselves.

The government has recently formulated a national policy for older persons, listing out a range of social welfare measures targetted towards the elderly. A few states, notably Himachal Pradesh, have even experimented with legislating for the elderly, mandating them as a legal charge on their children. While the merits or otherwise of the proposed policy will continue to be debated, it remains a matter of concern that we have increasingly to rely on the state to provision for our elderly and that inter-generational relationships have to be recast in the language of legal rights and entitlements. As H.Y. Sharada Prasad, in a recent column in Asian Age presciently pointed out, ‘ It is not the government that has elderly parents, but we. It is up to us to take the initiative in protecting them.’

It is heartening that civil society has taken some steps in this direction, be it through setting up day care centres, old age residential homes, organising recreational activities for the elderly, arranging care of the indigent or terminally ill, and so on. The medical estab lishment too has got sensitized to the special problems faced by the elderly, both physiological and psychological. More important, the elder citizens have begun to organise themselves in forums for mutual support, as pressure groups for policy changes and so on. Outside the family, many older people have become active participants in NGOs, in helping improve civic life, in brief, carving out an active and useful role for themselves. The last in particular has been crucial in helping break the image of the elderly as dependant.

As long as we continue to perceive older persons as a problem, it will be difficult to move out of a utilitarian and instrumental focus. A civilized society must create conditions such that the aged can live lives of self-worth and dignity, more a source of joy than a burden. This issue of Seminar examines some of these concerns. There is no getting away from the fact that the elderly are today what we will be tomorrow.