Social ageing in India and America

John van Willigen

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‘In India we have the joint family system, in the West you have old age homes. India is better.’


I have completed two very similar research projects on social ageing, one in America and one in India. My research work involved going back and forth between ageing research in both the United States and India for about the last 12 years. During this period I participated in scholarly discourse about ageing, the meaning of social research on ageing, and overall societal trends.

In this essay I will discuss some perceptions formed by these experiences. Many of my opinions derive from the juxtaposition of what I learned from those two research experiences and the way that Indian and American people regard each other in terms of ageing. I have been struck by the way Indian people perceive the situation of older people in India and the United States and how they evaluate that difference. The opening quote represents one viewpoint that I have frequently heard when interviewing people in India. I discuss some of these contrasts, including Indian perceptions of the United States compared to my perceptions of the United States and my view of Indian self-perceptions as they compare to what actually seems to be occurring to older people in India.

Much of this relates to my trying to figure out the reality and dynamic of the joint family and older people in India. Most Indian research scholars have a view about ageing in the United States which is suffused with stereotypes, and if not wrong only partially true. More often than not this is conveyed through smug expressions of India’s ‘moral superiority’ and ‘spiritual development’ in contrast to the ‘materialism’ and ‘moral decline’ of the West.

The other side of the equation involves understanding the conceptions westerners have, both about the Indian family as a place for ageing and their own relations with their parents. Most westerners tend to romanticize the Indian joint family while being fairly self-critical about their ability to care for their parents.



In India, with some limited exceptions, ageing researchers place a high value on the joint family. I always thought that they do so uncritically. Very much going against the grain, K. G. Desai, now retired from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, once wrote that the joint family in India represents a forced choice, made because of inadequate retirement income that necessitates pooling, and expensive housing that compels sharing quarters. He concluded that if people had adequate assets they would live in nuclear family households.

In contrast to Desai’s view, based on my research and the experience of living with a three-generation family in Delhi for many months, I came to the conclusion that a joint family was a good situation within which to grow old. It has been my experience that people are, for the most part, helpful and loving and that there were a lot of interesting things going on. It was a good place to be very old and very young.

My first social ageing research experience was in the United States. I studied rural people in a county near where I work at the University of Kentucky. Many families were involved in farming and there were no industrial jobs in the county. The annual production cycles of tobacco, corn, hay and beef cattle had an important impact on the flow of life. Many people had active religious lives and were concerned about their spiritual development, which was important to them. When Indians spoke of the materialism of the West, I automatically thought of the people I researched in rural Kentucky. It wasn’t that way at all. They would attend church most Sunday mornings where they would listen to the preacher offer his or her views concerning the moral implications of the congregation’s behaviour and how they could ‘grow in Christ’. The ‘religious discourse’ would invariably end with an invitation to the congregants to ‘publicly declare Christ as their saviour’ and to submit to the sacrament of baptism.

Further, there was little tendency to conspicuously display wealth. After I got more familiar with the community, I could observe groups interacting which would include people the local equivalent of crorepatis as well as those who were more or less poor tenant farmers. They dressed the same and talked the same. Distinctions based on wealth were subtle and expressions of materialistic values were very subdued. Communicating equality represented an important value. The image of American materialism would be challenged by the experience of doing research in a place like this.



The situation of older people in this county was coloured by demography and migration. The percentage of older people was high. No broad-based, fertile, population pyramid here. It was more like a column. While some seemed to attribute the age structure to increased longevity, it was more a matter of out-migration. Many younger people were forced to move away because of limited employment and the relatively poor income provided by agriculture. Because of this the average age of the county was high and getting higher. In this rural American community, as everywhere else it seems, demography is an important factor structuring the nature of lives of ageing people. Often when we interviewed older people they lamented the fact that their children and other young people had to leave the community in order to support themselves. Old people would often talk about the lack of jobs for the youth rather than problems more associated with their age mates. The community represented a kind of demographic shell. The population was old.



Just as I was finishing the book about my Kentucky research, I got a Fulbright lectureship for India. This was not totally out of the blue as I had studied Hindi while a graduate student in anthropology and had intended to do my dissertation in India, although I never was able to. While lecturing about applied anthropology at Delhi University, a faculty member in psychology, N. K. Chadha, suggested that we collaborate on a research project. As I was just in the last stages of completing the Kentucky book, I suggested that we do a similar study in India. It was a good time for such a project, as there had been little research work on older people at that time. There was increasing unease about the apparently rapidly ageing Indian population. Now, ten years later, there is a lot of research and many publications, mostly by psychologists.

The neighbourhood we studied was established in the early 1950s, mostly by people who had migrated to Delhi from the Punjab during Partition. The circumstance of the neighbourhood’s creation also relates to the population being mostly well-off business families. One effect of this was that most households consisted of joint families. It was interesting for me to deal with a sample in which there was such a big commitment to joint families. Chadha and I found that over 80% of the households were joint, mostly three generation, or formed of families of brothers. Had I limited my understanding to only the research from this study, I would have concluded that joint families in India were robust and important. However, even in this setting, people said that the joint family was declining in importance or decreasing in frequency.



The idea that the joint family is disappearing is a widespread one. Most books published on ageing topics in India assert it. It has come to be a kind of standard introduction expressed as a forgone conclusion. This is not to say that there is much high quality evidence that this is true; it’s just that many people lament the joint family’s demise. The ‘breakdown’ in the joint family system is a recurring theme. I agree with Lawrence Cohen, an American medical anthropologist who has called the ‘decline of the joint family’ the central narrative of Indian gerontology.

However, there doesn’t actually seem to be any research that conclusively demonstrates that the frequency of joint families is today less in India than in the past. On average, older Indians live in large households compared to Americans. I have seen citations from national surveys indicating that only 6% of the elderly population of India lives alone or with non-relatives. A comparable statistic for Americans from good national level data is just over 40%.

Statistics from India about co-residence indicate that joint family living is still common for old people. I probably overrate the importance of co-residence rather than family attachments, possibly because it is relatively easy to study who lives with who and more difficult to investigate family attachments. I assume that when people say that the joint family is disappearing, they are referring to something beyond ‘mere living together’. I imagine that the way power and authority are structured in the household is an important part of the transformation and that people in joint families are increasingly ‘just living together.’

In fact, every once in a while I still get a glimpse of the ‘real joint family’ pattern marked by robust patriarchal authority and large size. It seems clear that inspite of large co-resident households in the present, there is substantial difference with the situation in the past: more individualism, less pooling or sharing of assets, less gender inequality. Maybe it is true that mere co-residence is not that important and that the issue is something more like familial love, cooperation and commitment. Ironically, Indian interpretations of the American situation seem to focus on the American pattern of nuclear household residence irrespective of issues of commitment, familial love and cooperation. American families too exhibit familial love, cooperation and commitment; it’s just that they don’t live in the same houses or even in the same city.



I think co-residence is confused with family commitment. In my view Indians tend to look at American families in terms of the meaning they attach to the co-residence pattern found in America. Families who don’t live together may in fact be quite committed to each other. My wife and I see or talk with our married daughters about once a week. We have no sons. When an acquaintance from India suggested that I must be lonely because I don’t see them more frequently, I recall thinking facetiously, ‘we use email’.

The Kentuckians whom I studied are family-oriented, yet they tend to live in nuclear family settings or alone. What do I mean by family orientation? They actively maintain ties of love, respect and support in spite of not living together. They do this by financing their children’s education beyond high school (Rs 800,000-1,000,000); using influence and connections to get their children jobs; caring for grandchildren; inviting the family for Sunday dinner; nursing older relatives when they get sick; paying for their children’s marriage; and making efforts to have people attend church together, among many other things. In Kentucky there is even a tradition of having family reunions for those that live elsewhere. In short, they express in strong terms a commitment to each other’s welfare, it’s just that they don’t live with each other, especially after they graduate from high school.



They don’t lament this. ‘He still lives with his parents’ is seen as some kind of low-level character flaw for anybody, especially a boy past high school. I recall that when my parents were alive they expressed the central American ageing narrative and often talked about not being a burden. They were proud of the fact that I did not have to support them in their old age. My father often teased me by suggesting that they would move in with my wife and I. They accomplished their independence, of which they were proud, through their savings and social security. As they got old it was more likely that they would send me money rather than the other way around. As their health declined, my sister and I began to do more and more for them. Our last act of caring was burying my father’s ashes in a cemetery surrounded by family members from all over America.

The two communities saw families in very different temporal frameworks; existentially the Kentuckians and the Delhites present an interesting point of contrast. Given the religious beliefs found in the Kentucky community, people conceived that family groups could be together for eternity. As Christians, they saw themselves going to heaven as individuals and being in contact. They spoke of seeing each other on the ‘other side’. In fact, for some this represented a motivation to encourage younger family members to take up religious life and to tend to their spiritual development and salvation.



While I have found Indians to be expressive about the life of older people in America, Americans tend to have fewer opinions specifically focused on the situation of older people in India. If anything the tendency is to think of India as a country of young people while ignoring the large and rapidly growing older segment of the population. This relates to perceptions and misunderstandings about the implications of the differences in life expectancy between the two countries. There are those who confuse life expectancy with life maximum. This is a naive but common view. Beyond that is a tendency to take a romantic view of family life in Asia. Americans see India as a place where older people are treated with respect and honour in the context of extended families. Importantly, these romantics ignore the fact that structurally these families require a patriarchal bias. Power and wealth is concentrated in the hands of males – fathers and sons – and that the lives of women can be very restrictive.

It has been my experience that people in India closely associate nuclear family living arrangements and loneliness. I do think nuclear family life increases the risk of social isolation generally. At the same time loneliness is not a necessary outcome of a nuclear family based life strategy. In the India research we found that those who lived in nuclear families usually had more ties with people outside the household. I suppose you could say that they compensated for their somewhat diminished social situation. In fact their overall social network, including household ties, was slightly larger than of those living in joint family settings in the neighbourhood.

I found that the average size of older people’s social network in both Delhi and Kentucky are identical. The Kentuckians lived in small households, often alone, while the Delhites mostly lived in joint family households.



Jointness requires wealth. It is quite clear that joint families are not as strong or frequent among poor people and landless rural people. It is also related to the economic strategy that the family uses. Jointness is less common among the salaried class like government servants. This is what the ageing research literature shows clearly. I always think of this when an Indian colleague makes the ‘you have old age homes we have joint families’ statement. Only a certain percentage of people live in these kinds of families. Certainly if you are poor there is a greater chance that you will be socially isolated. This is also apparent in certain kinds of upper-middle class families. I even learnt that the kind of household you live in largely depends on what kind of a neighbourhood you live in Delhi. For a while I rented a flat in a better south Delhi neighbourhood and learnt that better-off, older people, mostly women, lived alone. The wealthy and the poor share certain qualities in this regard.

Jointness requires a patriarchal social structure. The key to a joint family is the capacity to capture the love and attention of daughters-in-law. In America there are no daughters-in-law in the Indian sense. The ‘joint family set up’ is contingent on values-laws-practices that help men capture the labour of women, especially daughters-in-laws and have it appear morally good.

What do the Americans do? The view communicated by the opening statement that somehow the American ‘old age home’ is equivalent to the joint family is inconsistent with reality. India may well be a better place to age socially, but in America most old people don’t live in ‘old age homes’. The percentage is actually quite small. About 5% of the population 65 and over live in what are called nursing homes in the United States. The nursing home population is old, three out of four are 75 years or older. A large portion of the population is women. 34% of nursing home residents are women 85 and older. People in American nursing homes are chronically ill. They receive nursing care. I think Indian ‘old age homes’ are something like what Americans call ‘assisted living’. These are fairly common. Usually this entails all the residents eating together and perhaps benefiting from some sort of social programmes and outings organized by the institution.



The number of persons living in old age homes in India must be very small. HelpAge India’s 1995 national directory of old age homes in India based on extensive national survey, found only 12,702 residents. At the same time it showed that the number of residents was increasing and that there was a national shortage of beds. The distribution of old age home beds is highly variable from state to state in India, reflecting underlying demography. The relative availability is much higher in the South where populations have begun the demographic transition to lower fertility and lower mortality. When one looks at the distribution of this problem, one tends to think in terms of the primacy of demography. At this point we can assert the ‘demography is not destiny’ mantra, common in the political action circles around ageing in the United States.

Further, some say that the pro-joint family rhetoric represents a denial of the emerging reality which keeps service providers and policy makers from working aggressively on the welfare problems of all older people. A reliance on the idea that the joint family will take care of older people would be especially hard on the destitute specifically and the poor generally.

We are largely forced by circumstances into certain patterns of arrangement of social life. Our values and self-concepts fit our circumstances only with considerable lag. Both in India and the United States there is a tendency to view this re-arrangement of domestic affairs as a kind of moral crisis rather than a somewhat inevitable fallout of demographic change.

It appears that family structures in India and the U.S. may be converging. As India’s age demography transforms toward the pattern found in more heavily industrialized countries, the situation of older people will converge even more. India may well be on its way toward the kind of social circumstance experienced by older people in industrialized countries.

An ageing policy based on the idea that the joint family will sustain the needs of older people is problematic for these reasons: (i) large segments of the population do not have access to joint family life; (ii) the joint family requires a high extraction of women’s energies who are often not vested in family property; and (iii) the family may be declining. There needs to be a more objective assessment of the situation of older people in order to anticipate societal needs in a reasonable way. This includes an objective understanding of the demography of age and the conditions of ageing for all segments of society as opposed to the reliance on wishful thinking and myth.