According to a Ministry of External Affairs report, there are 31 million Non-Resident Indians (NRIs and PIOs) residing outside India. Every one of these NRIs with elderly parents back home in India is aware of that familiar feeling of constant worry lurking at the back of their minds, added to a lingering sense of guilt for having left them behind.
As families shrink, support systems vanish and children get busy with careers in faraway lands, parents are left with large houses that pose a security threat, or in apartments with cantankerous housing societies and neighbours. When thousands of Indians emigrate each year for higher education, lucrative jobs or a better lifestyle, they leave behind, either knowingly or unknowingly, their biggest treasure -- their elderly parents with broad smiles and cheerful exteriors, who hide behind their moist eyes untold stories of loneliness, anxiety, fear and uncertainty that they would rather not tell their children several hours of travel time away.
Apart from the loneliness and the anxiety of being separated, in times of illness and emergencies, even simple chores like going to the bank, standing in a queue for a gas cylinder or paying a bill becomes a challenge, going to the doctor or a dentist becomes an ordeal.
To offset this loneliness and isolation, NRI parents in Bengaluru have established an organisation called the NRI Parents Association (NRIPA), to provide a support network for themselves, to hold regular meetings, socialize and share a common set of concerns. Another organisation, the Association of Parents of Indians Resident Overseas (APIRO), brings all NRI parents’ organisations together under a single umbrella, assists left-behind parents suffering from painful separation, lack of emotional support and physical insecurity, by providing a platform to share their sunset years.
Initially, both NRI parents and children live on the hope of reuniting in the foreseeable future, only to find it more and more difficult as the years go by.
Many NRI children do invite their parents overseas, but most of the time to end up doing housework, baby-sit, or to assist with the delivery of grandchildren. Many attempt to advise their parents to emigrate permanently, a very difficult option for most parents to accept. The initial gap, a geographical one, now widens, with the addition of a more critical emotional gap.
Although typical old-age homes are still taboo in our society, Bengaluru’s senior citizens are flocking to these homes for easily available facilities and medication. Advancing age and the loss of motor function makes performing day-to-day activities a daunting task, requiring care for senior citizens on a 24/7 basis. The best old-age homes provide emotional comfort with dedicated caregivers helping out with everyday chores, scheduling appointments with doctors and hospitalisation when required. NRI parents get companionship, a sense of comfort and security, a ‘family’ to speak to and to spend quality time with. They get medical care, support services to do their housekeeping, laundry and transportation, a basic menu designed on their nutritional needs or customized food in case of illnesses.
The moot point is, can associations and old-age homes ever make up for the absence of their children? Although most NRI parents proudly claim that they don’t have the “empty nest syndrome,” and that they are very happy with their homes, reality is different. It is tough to adjust to an old-age home, to enjoy a level of comfort or intimacy that comes with long association. Loneliness is stressful for the elderly, with no family or relatives, more so during festivities. Another hitch is that there isn’t room for all. Established old-age homes have long waiting lists and vacancies depend on inmates leaving the old-age home or dying, both of which are uncertain.
Short of returning to be with their parents, what options are available for NRI children? They can do much more for their parents, even without their asking. They can visit them frequently, make sure there is no empty house syndrome during vacations, spend quality time, ensure their safety and well-being, provide them trained caregivers, convince them to move close to better medical facilities, find suitable old-age homes if parents prefer to live in them.
Emotional support in the form of frequent phone and video calls is necessary to make up for their absence. They should encourage parents to become members of organizations like NRIPA and APIRO, for a sense of belonging while spending time with like-minded people.
According to the State of World Population report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), India’s population in 2019 was 1.36 billion, with 6% -- 81.6 million -- of age 65 years and above. The Indian joint family system is almost extinct; innumerable seniors are living alone, or with caregivers in old-age homes. This number will only grow, with more and more of them requiring old-age homes, caregivers, emotional support and continuous handholding.
(The writer is a former director on the Board of BEML)