Is the best yet to be?
“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be,”
Robert Browning’s immortal words now ring truer than ever. The time is ripe to celebrate the golden years. People are living longer and healthier, thanks to improved healthcare and nutrition. Scientific advances are banishing dreaded diseases and prolonging life expectancy. Research on the human genome, for example, is poised to take us beyond merely fighting diseases, and perhaps enable our thathas and ajjis to race like Usain Bolt.
Forget about searching for those perfect dentures or reading glasses. Seniors can now aspire to regain the youthful look with new cosmetic and surgical treatments which will erase crow’s feet and lift sagging jowls. From posh retirement communities to attractive investment plans, there are plenty of goodies in store. Our elders are now upgrading their professional skills, applying for and getting new jobs, and even finding the love of their lives with new spouses or live-ins.
Seniors are growing into a force to reckon with. In almost every country, the proportion of people above 60 years is growing faster than any other age group, as a result of both longer life expectancy and declining birth rates. India has an estimated 100 million elderly persons, which is the second largest in the world. The population of senior citizens in India is projected to reach 179 million by 2031. By 2050, the world’s population aged 60 and over is expected to more than triple from 600 million to 2 billion. The world is growing older, and hopefully wiser. Within the next five years, the number of adults aged 65 and over will outnumber children under the age of five.
Our very own Big B’s recent 70th birthday celebrations has highlighted the glamour, success, aspirations and joys of folks who seem to be growing more vibrant with passing years. Yet Baghban, a 2003 film starring Amitabh Bachchan, also portrayed the pitfalls sadly faced by many Indian seniors. They do their best to provide for their children. But, once the parents are no longer able to support themselves, their children often consider them as a liability. Abandonment and abuse of elders is on the rise, not just in remote western cultures, but right in our own neighbourhoods. As life spans are increasing, the menace of age-related debilities like Alzheimer’s add to the woes of elders.
Let’s consider the privileges and problems of ageing, and see how the balance sheet tallies. For seniors blessed with good health and comfortable finances, the golden years offer bountiful rewards. The World Health Organisation has coined the term “active ageing” for achieving this vision of living a physically and mentally healthy life for all people as they age. Elders today are emerging from the shadows and facing life with spirit. Fit and feisty seniors today are going on world tours, learning new languages, and taking up challenging new activities such as adventure sports. Others are actively contributing to the improvement of community life. Indian seniors are following their Western counterparts in opting for comfortable retirement communities catering to their special needs. Promoters promise spacious rooms in picturesque surroundings, with in-house medical facilities, meals catered keeping diet restrictions in mind, and recreation areas where seniors can share their interests with like-minded companions.
Indian elders are embracing every aspect of life with zest. Matchmaking services dedicated to helping seniors find life partners are helping those who wish to give life and love another chance. Remarrying at an advanced age after divorce or death of a spouse, is not easy. But more elders are nodding with approval at the idea. Vinamulya Amulya Sewa, an Ahmedabad-based organisation, is organising swayamvar for single people above 50 years under the banner ‘Second Innings’. This special marriage bureau has already received 1,200 applications from all over India, and has successfully helped unite several single people in their golden years. In Mumbai, Dignity Foundation organises a Chai Masti Corner, where older people have found companionship and even new life partners. In Bhopal, a new marriage bureau aims to provide a platform for senior citizens to come together, either through marriage or a live-in relationship.
Old age is the time to reap the rewards of a life well-lived. The Government of India has offered special benefits and concessions for our senior citizens. Here’s a sample of perks which make the prospect of increasing years something to look forward to:
- Seniors can earn a higher rate of interest on their deposits with public sector banks. Some banks also offer concessions on charges for various services such as issuing pass books, cheque books and statements of accounts.
- Seniors can benefit from a higher threshold income, above which they start paying tax.
- Government-owned telecom companies offer seniors some concessions on phone bills.
- When the travel bug bites, seniors can avail of concessions offered by Indian Railways and Air India. Buying and cancelling tickets are made easier with special counters for seniors at railway booking offices. Government-run bus services also have provisions for concessional tickets and seats reserved for elders. Indian Railways has even introduced special coaches with hand rails and specially designed toilets for elders and handicapped persons. These coaches also have space for wheel chairs. And of course, these facilities are also available in airports.
- The Chief Justice of India has advised Chief Justices of all High Courts to accord priority to cases involving senior citizens and ensure a speedy disposal. (Vide letter of Government of India, Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment (SD Section), New Delhi, F. No. 20-76/99-SD dated 03.11.1999)
Financial security and access to good healthcare facilities are a must for “active ageing” to be widespread. The current facts and figures are a cause of grave concern. While our cities boast of government-run and private healthcare facilities, expensive medical treatment is beyond the reach of everyone. About 75 per cent of persons of age 60 and above reside in rural areas, where there are no hospitals or even doctors for miles around. About 55 million elderly sleep on an empty stomach every night. Around 33 per cent seniors are below the poverty line and many of them are illiterate. Over two-thirds of those above 80 years are financially dependent on others. It is estimated that nearly seven lakh Indians in their sixties will die of heart diseases by 2015. About 12 million people in India are blind, and most of them are elderly people, and around 62 of them are blind due to cataracts, which can be cured by surgery.
Exciting advances are being made in the treatment of dreaded age-related diseases. Researchers at Stanford University recently found that blood from young mice reversed some of the effects of ageing in the older mice. Their learning and memory capabilities improved considerably. The technique could one day help people stave off the worst effects of ageing, including conditions such as Alzheimer’s. However, the latest treatments must be made affordable and accessible to all, in order to make a significant impact.
Older people grow better at telling stories...over and over and over and over. Wise seniors become a walking storehouse of facts. Only sometimes, they can’t locate the keys to that storehouse. Jokes apart, increasing physical and mental frailties are a sad fact of the ageing process. More comprehensive public health policies and facilities are vital to enable elders to live fulfilling lives. Physical fitness is important for seniors to stay self-sufficient and contribute positively to society. Government and non-governmental agencies need to stress upon maintaining long-term health, and undertake to prevent ailments common among elders, such as cataracts, heart disease, stroke and cancer.
Prevention and early detection are important to reduce the trauma caused by age-related diseases. Also, more facilities are required for long-term care and support of the weak and ailing. Day care hospitals are a more affordable solution for the care of patients with chronic diseases. India has very few hospices which care for terminally ill patients. NGOs and charitable organisations can make a significant positive impact in this area. An ideal preventive health package should include spreading awareness about diseases as well as their prevention and management. Awareness also needs to be spread about the importance of balanced diet and physical exercise.
Recognising the growing need for welfare measures for the elderly, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India, adopted a ‘National Policy on Older Persons’ in January 1999. The policy provides broad guidelines for taking proactive action for the welfare of elders. The aim is to ensure their well-being and improve the quality of their lives by providing facilities, concessions, and services to help them cope with age-related problems. The policy proposes affirmative action on the part of government agencies so that the existing public facilities for senior citizens are made better suited to their needs.
On the flip side
With children migrating to greener pastures in distant lands, elders are often forced by circumstances to lead a lonely life. The problem intensifies with the deaths of a spouse and close friends. Joint families are crumbling, and time-tested social safety nets are becoming weak and ineffective. The wealthy are as vulnerable to loneliness as the economically weaker sections. According to HelpAge, an organisation dedicated to improving the lives of elders, one out of eight elderly persons feel no one cares they exist. The number of older people is growing, while younger people are proportionately reducing in numbers. The family has so far been primarily responsible for arranging or helping with long-term care for the elderly. But this resource is rapidly shrinking.
Government policymakers and the public at large need to fundamentally reconsider their image of the role of elderly people in society. All efforts must be made to avert a disastrous breakdown in support systems for elders. Ageing people should be considered not simply as a social burden requiring medical care, but as a group who can continue to participate in social, economic, cultural and civic affairs. Entirely new models of systems for elder care may need to be invented in the coming decades.
Meanwhile, the burden of tending to ailing elders is taking a silent but massive toll on the well-being of younger caregivers. The proportion of aged persons who are confined to their bed or home ranges from 77 per 1,000 in urban areas to 84 per 1,000 in rural areas.
Due to lack of institutionalised support systems, younger relatives are compelled to give up active lives, and compromise their personal lives, in order to cater to the daily needs of invalid elders. Care Circle is an example of an informal Internet-based support group, where Indian caregivers freely exchange tips and ideas on coping with their responsibilities. Access to such support groups can give caregivers the courage to go on when the odds seem impossible.
Retirement communities and old age homes can provide succour to elders to a great extent. But the existing facilities are woefully inadequate to meet growing needs. Also, the best managed facilities are often beyond the reach of the needy. The KLES hospital in Belgaum is introducing an innovative ‘Adopt a granny’ programme for children. Under this programme, abandoned or neglected elders, especially those who are very aged, ill or lack mobility, will be adopted by local school children. Both children and their adopted elders will benefit emotionally from an affectionate relationship. The hospital, which has a separate geriatric care unit, will provide free medical care to these adopted elders.
Projects such as this are worthy of emulation, for they can, if implemented in a focused way, provide both emotional and medical support to better the lives of elders.
The elderly are vulnerable to abuse and violence within their families or in institutions. According to a recent news item, a 35-year-old Bangalore man murdered his elderly father over a property dispute. Meanwhile, an 85-year-old man recently filed a petition in the Karnataka High Court, claiming that he had transferred all his property to his son’s name. But the married son allegedly preferred to live with his wife and in-laws, abandoning his aged father in a state of penury. Such incidents are common in our society, highlighting the plight of the elderly. The most common abusers of seniors are close family members.
Economic dependence and physical debility make elders prone to abuse. The Central and State governments have attempted to address economic insecurity by launching policies such as the National Policy on Older Persons, National Old Age Pension Program, Annapurna Program, etc. However, the benefits of these programmes have been diluted at times by inadequate budgets, improper identification of beneficiaries, lengthy procedures, and irregular payment. The Government has formulated laws to protect the elderly. But they need to be more aware of their rights and able to seek out help. A survey report by HelpAge India pointed out that among the elderly who are aware of the laws against abuse, 18 per cent are aware of the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizen’s Act; 11 per cent of them are aware of the National Policy on Older Persons; 12 per cent are aware of the Protection of Women against Domestic Violence Act. The rest, who form the majority, do not know their rights and privileges.
Even educated elders from upper class backgrounds are vulnerable to economic insecurity, which in turn can make them victims of abuse. In our country, around 87 per cent of senior retired citizens do not receive pension or Provident Fund when they retire. Even when retirement benefits do trickle in for the fortunate few, inflation erodes its value. Medical expenses shoot up, and meeting daily needs becomes increasingly difficult. Non-Governmental agencies can make a significant impact in this area. Nightingales Medical Trust recently held a job fair for senior citizens in Bangalore, and placed over 300 senior citizens in suitable jobs. Such innovative ideas have great potential. Retired but physically and mentally active elders need to return to work in order to support themselves. They can attend classes to acquire new skills. New skills, in addition to years of work experience, can make them an asset to prospective employers.
Making the sunset years truly a golden age to look forward to, calls for a holistic and synchronised approach by governmental and non-governmental agencies. With proper financial planning, social support and health care, older people can continue to enjoy life while playing an active role in society.