In the public discourse of India there is an invisible — the elderly and the infirm. In the youth-focussed policy drive that obsesses us as a nation we tend to forget our senior citizens. To reap the benefit of our demographic dividend the concentration is mainly on the young and the fulfillment of their elementary requirements to enhance national productivity. However, here are some numbers that provide a reality check. As per the Population Census of 2011 there are nearly 10.4 crore elderly persons (aged 60 years or above) in India; 5.3 crore females and 5.1 crore males. According to a report released by the United Nations Population Fund and Help Age India, the number of elderly persons is projected to grow to 17.3 crores by 2026. To put these statistics into perspective, the total population of France is 6.7 crores, Britain another 6.7 crores, Sweden is one crore and four lakhs and Bangladesh is 16.3 crores.
As many as 71 per cent of India's senior citizens reside in rural areas while 29 per cent live in urban areas almost mirroring the rural urban mix of our population. The old-age dependency ratio rose from 10.9 per cent in 1961 to 14.2 per cent in 2011 for the whole of India. The most conjoint disability among the aged persons is locomotor and visual disability. The state-wise break up of our elderly population reveals that Kerala has the maximum proportion of elderly people at 12.6 per cent of its population followed by Goa at 11.2 per cent and Tamil Nadu at 10.4 per cent. All these figures would have significantly grown since the Census of 2011.
Once upon a time, not too long ago, the stretched family structure ensured that seniors resided not only with their families but even brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts in neighbouring homes. Everyone was close at hand for any predicaments such as health issues or even foreseen or unforeseen bereavements. The societal fabric was suitably knitted and proper regard was given to elders. This arrangement facilitated elders to lead realistically content lives with barely any anxiety as they had the conviction that somebody would look after them as and when required. Whenever there were some health problems for a senior, the entire extended family would run around to attend to all their necessities, rendering medical to personal assistance. With perfect understanding on caring and sharing the duties, the elders did not feel let down or lonely.
With the fragmentation of the joint family organisation and the rise in the number of nuclear families, elders in India often find themselves left alone, neglected and depressed even if they are residing with either their children or even grandchildren. The strain and stresses of the contemporary realm keep family members preoccupied with their own drudgery and education with hardly any time, and occasionally, even proclivity to spend time with the older members of their families.
For elderly people whose offspring have emigrated abroad, the situation is worse. Bereft of the presence of any other person in the household, they try to while away their time with a few errands and lonely walks until such time that their failing health permits. With rising age comes reduced movement and bad health confines them indoors with only the idiot box for solace.
The conventional Indian ethos and the longstanding joint family arrangement had for centuries played a cardinal role in preserving the socio-economic well-being of our greying and greyed venerables. However, with swift transformation in the societal milieu and the institutionalisation of the nuclear family frameworks in the past couple of decades, now elderly people have increasingly become vulnerable to emotional physical and financial insecurities. With the bulk of our populace being less than 30 years of age, the trials and tribulations of our senior citizens have not been given thoughtful deliberation.
Living solitary is more often than not cited as the rationale for loneliness. Census 2011 delineates that almost 15 million of our ageing citizens live all alone and about to three-fourths of them are women. One out of every seven of our old folks live in a home where there is not one person below the age of 60 years.
Loneliness does not, however, and necessarily, stem from being unaccompanied or living solitary. Even people living alone can be wholly content if they are organised and have a routine of activities that keep them occupied. Conversely, you may be living with family or in the middle of people and still feel lonesome. This lonesomeness stems from feeling that no one cares for you and you have no one to shower your affection on. A person begins to acquire negative energy when there is no one to converse with.
Academic studies reveal that over 65 per cent of old people are poor with no sources of known income. A total of 35 per cent still have wealth, assets, reserves, investments, bequests and, above all, empathetic kids. However, juxtaposed against the fact that India has a population of 100 million old people and that the number will touch 324 million by 2050 — equivalent to the population of many nations, the lack of a social security architecture becomes galling.
What is most unfortunate is that notwithstanding their financial status, most elderly people face maltreatment in one form or the other, according to a study released to mark the United Nations’ World Elder Abuse Awareness Day observed on the 15th of June each year.
The study reveals that due to lack of knowledge about their entitlements in old age, countless persons are obliged to live in callous conditions. With a momentous surge in the population of the elderly, bone-chilling horror stories of elder abuse bound. The tragic thing is that a majority of older people are acquiescent to their fates.
With the average age of the NDA/BJP government being 60 years, it is necessary that a holistic policy for the continuing physical and mental well being of our senior citizens backed by significant resources should be put in place. The National Policy of Senior Citizens, 2011, a laudable initiative that unfortunately has remained on paper, requires an update and proper implementation. Most of all, it just takes giving some respect and care to the elderly to make their day. We owe it to them.
The author is a lawyer, Member of Parliament and former Union information and broadcasting minister. The views expressed are personal. Twitter handle @manishtewari...