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India has no time for its elderly

With hardly any social security net to take care of India's 60+ population, it is building up to a crisis of monumental proportions.

August 29, 2021 / 08:33 AM IST
Illustration by Suneesh K.

Illustration by Suneesh K.

A friend recently asked for help to fill out a claim form for medical insurance. Otherwise a fit and sprightly 60, she has a slight vision problem and found the tiny little squares into which she was required to write, a major challenge. The insurance company offered no concession to her years or her eyesight and provided no other option, including the sensible one of letting her complete the form online. The pdf document had to be downloaded, printed, filled by hand and then couriered. Each of those seemingly minor tasks can be a test for an older person. The same is the case with every piece of paperwork, whether it is issued by the government or by a private entity.

But then, age isn’t on the side of India’s elders. India’s young are to be celebrated and toasted, its old barely tolerated.

You see evidence of that wherever you turn. Check the little plastic bottles of various eye drops in the market. It is impossible to read even the name of the medicine, leave aside the composition and the ingredients. And opening any such bottle can be potentially hazardous to weaker hands and teeth. The apathy is all-pervasive. India’s notorious public transport system for instance, often clubs senior citizens with the disabled, often leaving the two to compete for the lone seating space.

The government has a Ministry for Women and Child Development and another one for Youth Affairs and Sports. And that’s just great since all of these segments need special care. But senior citizens don’t have any such luck. Their affairs are clubbed in a division under the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment. In 1999, a National Policy on Older Persons (NPOP), was framed which envisaged State support to ensure financial and food security, healthcare, shelter and other needs of older persons. The less said about the implementation of that policy, the better. During the pandemic, the lives of the less-privileged elderly have been torn asunder, with even the simplest of chores becoming a challenge. In most cases, they got little help from the state.

Perhaps it is a matter of prioritising and allocating scarce resources for the most productive members of society. In a country where 61 percent of the population is in the working-age group of 15-59 years while 27 percent are children in the age group 0-14 years, those are the cohorts which will find favour with the planners. But India isn’t going to be a young population for too long. The country’s 60+ population is growing at around 3 percent every year and will rise to 319 million in 2050 representing 19.5 percent of the total population, according to the Longitudinal Ageing Study of India (LASI). With hardly any social security net to take care of them, it is building up to a crisis of monumental proportions.

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With the breakdown of the traditional joint family system, many older people now lead lonely lives away from their children, even if they are lucky to have any in the first place. A retirement age of 58 in most cases means that old age woes begin early and continue for decades. Post-retiral benefits in the private sector are non-existent, making living in the metros virtually impossible.

Products specially tailored to the needs of older people don’t exist in most categories. The poor infrastructure compounds that. Thus, it is difficult to get an ergonomically-designed walker at a reasonable price. Combined with the poor state of the streets, it forces older people with some infirmities to mostly stay indoors. In the rare instance that there is a park in the vicinity, older people out for a walk have to contend with street dogs and strategically placed hurdles.

Health insurance policies too mostly centre around hospitalization. Few cater to older people’s need for regular visits to doctors for treatment or even check ups. Hospitals play their part in perpetuating this callousness. The insistence on an attendant to accompany a patient who’s there to take an injection, is both emotionally and materially cruel. The underlying aim is understandable. But where does it leave an older person who doesn’t have an attendant to bring along?

Ageing is mandatory for all those who are lucky to reach that far. So also the pains that come with it. Civilized societies, however, can just make it that much easier.
Sundeep Khanna is a senior journalist. Views are personal.
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