Old and lonely in new India

Old and lonely in new India

Old and lonely in new India

Once when I was searching for old-age homes in Kolkata for a story, my mother said sardonically: "Look around you. The whole neighborhood has become an old-age home." It was an exaggeration but not by much.

The old man down the street was recovering from a knee replacement. The elderly lady across from him spent her days in her nightgown feeding the neighborhood's stray dogs. The children were gone - to the United States and Australia, to Bengaluru and Mumbai. When my sister went to pay our property taxes she found a separate line for seniors. It was pointless. Almost everyone there was a senior.

My mother had grown up as one of 30-odd cousins, all living in one sprawling house. In the morning they would leave their soaps outside the common bathroom to mark their place in the line. On holiday afternoons they would crowd onto their grandmother's bed. It was not a very big bed but somehow they all fit. Only a few of the next generation still live in Kolkata. The others return for weddings and funerals.

When I lived in the United States, my immigrant friends would always say their dream was to retire in India. The magnetic lure of the dollar had pulled them to the United States. In old age they planned to be economic migrants again, returning to India, where their dollar would go much further. India was the coda to their American dream. Who wants to live in the United States in old age, they would shudder. It was too expensive, too lonely, too difficult.

But according to the Global Age Watch Index, a survey by Help Age International that measures the quality of life - using income security, health, personal capability and enabling environment - for people age 60 and older, India ranked 71 out of 96 countries in 2015.

There have always been instances of older people being abandoned and neglected, treated as burdens and cheated out of property. It is just that now modernity, immigration and globalization make for more convenient scapegoats.

An aging specialist once told me that in the West, development came before longevity, but in India aging has come before development. The problem is not the 100 million seniors. The problem is they do not have enough savings. There is little by way of a social safety net and health infrastructure. Too few have health insurance or pensions.

India still largely relies on the family to take care of its elderly. The strain is showing as families splinter. The population of Indians older than 60 has grown at twice the rate of the overall population in recent years.

Over 100 million Indians are older than 60, according to the Indian government estimates. Help Age India suggests that by 2050 a quarter of the population will be over 60. But facilities have not kept up with the population.

Old-age homes still carry the stigma of abandonment and destitution. Adult day care centers are too few. Many old-age homes do not accept patients with dementia. Public transport is not senior friendly. Physicians who do home visits are hard to find, though cataract and knee replacement surgeries are booming.

In India's graying cities the greatest enemy is not failing knees and clouded vision. It is isolation. One of the biggest hit movies in recent years in Kolkata is a family drama called "Belaseshe," or "At the End of the Day," about lonely elders, busy children and relationships that are taken for granted. It is steeped in nostalgia for my mother's grandmother's four-poster bed and the children who crowded on it in a time before cellphones, video games and the internet.

What my generation can offer our parents is money and technology. We install Skype on their phones so that they can talk to faraway grandchildren. What did you eat today? How is school? We fly back and forth to do our duty, propelled by equal parts love and guilt. An uncle pretty much commutes from New Jersey to Kolkata to arrange for his mother's cancer treatment. A grandaunt insists her grandchildren take exemplary care of her. Her old family retainer scoffs at the face-saving lie.

One cousin flew in from Canada to research old-age homes for his 90-year-old mother. Even in her 80s she would go up and down four flights of stairs until a fall left her shaken. My cousin tried to find her a place that was comfortable, somewhere not too far, so that friends could visit. She did not protest, but four days before the move, she died quietly in her own bed at home. My mother just said: "Thank God. She was saved."

Simply keeping up with change can feel overwhelming. Three years into her semismartphone, my mother still complains, "Come quick, I don't understand what it just did." But she, too, has adapted. She asks me to wish a cousin "happy birthday" on Facebook. She uses WhatsApp as a verb. But she is still part of an analog generation grappling with a digital world.

Bad knees and frail health mean she goes out rarely, not even to vote. But when the government demanded that the mobile phones be linked to the recently introduced biometric identification cards, my mother, terrified about losing her phone connection, decided to go to the phone store. No one had any idea what to do for those physically unable to go to the mobile phone stores to register themselves. We rented a car for a five-minute journey and chaperoned her to the store.

The store needed her fingerprint. But in old age, the lines get blurred. There was no clear fingerprint to be had. My mother would have to remain an outlaw in digital India. "At least we are out of the house," she said.

(Sandip Roy is the author of the novel "Don't Let Him Know.")

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