'Nothing ever comes out of committees'

There are an estimated 12 or 13 crore senior citizens in the country   According to one count, some 17,000 people turn 60 nationwide every day. India may well be on its way to becoming the country with the largest population of the elderly – many of them living on their own, or with no money or home of their own.  Yet there are just 2,500 functional old-age homes across the country.

“The problem is that there is not enough sensitisation about old age people or their needs and if you don't have any knowledge of old age and what it entails, how will you prepare for it. Nothing ever comes out of the meetings and various committees formed for this purpose,” says Himanshu Rath from Agewell Foundation, a non-profit organisation.  He complains that there is no government policy to make senior citizens feel secure and looked after.

“In fact, police knocking at the doors of those who live alone, to register them, makes them feel more vulnerable and exposed. And like the policeman, can’t a doctor approach them to check on them or in case of an emergency? Even though there is a 13-crore population of old age people, there are only two gerontology courses available in India – one in AIIMS and the other in Chennai. Why can't there be such a system where old people are provided help, good facilities, free medication, good night shelters, etc,” he says.

In the United Kingdom, he says, social workers are assigned to keep tabs on the well-being of the elderly and maintain records on them in a specified area. “Such a system should be started here also. It is not difficult to identify the old people since we have Aadhaar card, election card, etc. The problem is that in any other country, the best of bureaucrats go to the social welfare department. In India, it is like a punishment posting,” he says.  

According to him, the elderly are a neglected lot because social work in India is looked as 'charity', unlike some other countries where it is considered a priority. The model of old-age homes has not been successful anywhere in India till now, not even in its national capital, according to him. There are over 15 lakh elderly people, some 10 per cent of the city’s population, in Delhi.

At present, there are only two government-run, free-of-cost old-age homes in Delhi, which means there is a huge gap between the supply and demand for space. In Rath’s view, the conditions there are “worse than hell”.  "There is no water or electricity most of the time because the bills have not been paid. There is occasional food as ration money has not been released,” he says.

Coming to private old-age homes, there are some 48 of those in the city. The charges start from Rs 6,000 and go up to Rs 1 lakh per month. "Even the basic ones provide a bed in a dormitory, two teas, lunch and dinner. Now at the age of 60, the person would need some medication, toiletries, clothes, etc and if it is a couple, they would end up spending Rs 18-20,000. If a person can afford that much money, what will be the need to come to the old age home,” says Rath.

According to Agewell foundation, in all government schemes there should be focus also on the needs and rights of older persons, particularly older women. Besides preparing a model for good old age homes with better facilities, the government should establish a state-level institute for the aged on the lines of All India Institute for Medical Sciences (AIIMS) for treatment of and research in age-related ailments.

Also, the Delhi government should set up a Delhi Commission for the Aged, on the lines of Delhi Commission for Women to advice various departments on elderly-friendly policies and protect the interests of the aged, the NGO says.

Sensitive legislation
Another aspect is the lack of sensitive legislation for the elderly. Under the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens, 2007, it is the obligation of the children to maintain a senior citizen, take care of their needs so that they can lead a normal life. Parents can approach the Maintenance Tribunal if the children refuse to do so.

But Rath isn’t impressed. “You have come up with such a law in a country where most parents won't go against their children. Also because they fear that after they file a complaint and the child gets punished, he will stop doing whatever little he was doing till now, or disown the parents,” he says.

Even Delhi government’s Social Welfare Department has come across cases where they approached senior citizens with police after reports of their ill-treatment by the children. But they face problem in taking action against the children because the parents don't want to register a complaint.

According to Rath that happens because they know that there is no provision or set-up by the government where they will feel secure. Even after the complaint their life will be same, or even worse. They are aware of the conditions of old-age homes. Also so many parents have only daughters and once they get married, there is no culture of daughters spending on parents' maintenance.

The organisation has an employment exchange which helps in providing jobs to the senior citizens depending on their qualifications. "A similar initiative like the Chief Minister's Self-Employment Scheme can be started by the state government for the aged,” says Rath.

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