Empathetic eco system eludes elderly
Internationally, and largely at the behest of the United Nations, several days are observed during every year to underscore the importance of certain issues. The primary purpose of this arrangement is to create awareness, and sensitise the masses, on the significance of those issues.
The World Senior Citizens Day was observed on the 21st of August, 2021. This practice has been instituted largely in order to acknowledge, and honour, the contributions to society of senior citizens. A good time, I felt, to sit back and look at the big picture, about the manner in which the elderly are coping with the problems of ageing, and the response from society, and the government, to the challenges faced by them.
Substantially improved living conditions and enhanced availability of good quality healthcare services, coupled with increased access to them, following a general rise in the levels of incomes, especially in the middle class, have led to much greater longevity.
Reaching an age where one is regarded as a senior citizen is, in itself, no mean achievement, particularly in a country where, despite an impressive record of development and growth, food and nutrition in security, as also pandemics such as the one the world is going through now, constitute major challenges.
Steadily, but significantly, the number of senior citizens, as compared to the total population, is increasing the world over. By 2050 India is expected to have more than 300 million persons over the age of 60 (roughly the population of the US now!).
It is one of the fastest growing elderly population centres in the world. India has been classified as an ‘ageing country’ by the United Nations. The challenges this phenomenon poses are many especially on account of the lack of basic infrastructure and expertise to support the health and welfare of the elderly population.
The elderly face many issues, including insecurity caused by physiological, psychological, societal, emotional and financial aspects. A related phenomenon is the fact that, especially in urban centres, joint families have given way to nuclear families, a shift that has forced elders to fend for themselves.
The areas in which the challenges manifest themselves primarily are healthcare and emergency response infrastructure. Making things worse is the trend of youngsters going abroad for studies and employment and, eventually, settling there. This leaves the elders back home on their own and, as a consequence, they seek refuge in retirement homes, old-age homes and day care centers.
Apart from the question of shelter, the elderly face many financial issues. Having spent all the resources on building a house and providing education to the children, they would normally have neglected money matters.
Unfortunately, the welfare programmes devised by government to provide succour to the elderly, cover only a small section of that group. Financial institutions, both public and private, make only a small provision for the elderly. Insurance penetration also remains regrettably lo and highly restricted cost apart.
Despite the dire need, elder care in India is still largely neglected and the development of the ecosystem is primitive. It is necessary for us to understand that, quite apart from the health and financial issues they face, the elderly are most in need of compassion, love and the feeling of being needed.
It is very important for them to get adjusted to the feeling that the control pyramid vis-a-vis them and the younger generation gets gradually inverted with the passage of time. They need to be assured that they are not a burden on society. One method could be to devise innovative social events which help them maintain a sense of identity and self-esteem.
What the elderly need is ‘IKEGAI’ (a purpose for life), on the Japanese or, as the French expression goes or a reason for their existence ‘raison d’être.’ Such programmes should ideally also address issues relating to safety, balance, fitness and mobility, all challenges the elderly have to learn to address as they age. Often situations arise where members of the family are unable to care for the elderly.
The need for putting in place, and promoting, a comprehensive Elder Care Service thus assumes great importance.
Thanks to an overall improvement in the quality of life, and enhanced health consciousness, people are now remaining healthy and fit years after retirement or reaching the age of senior citizens. Unfortunately, manpower planning has yet to learn to cater to this emerging phenomenon.
On the other hand, most opportunities nowadays pertain to jobs involving knowledge of digital technology, something the elderly generally have difficulty in handling. It needs also to be realised that the elderly can be a source of wisdom and experience, as well as ethical and spiritual values, which can be harnessed for the good of the environment and the succeeding younger generations.
A report by the UN Population Fund India has observed that the section that deserves maximum attention remains old women, on account of their longer life expectancy and meagre or no income. It goes on to say that everyone has a part to play in addressing issues of the elderly including the government, civil society organisations, communities and families.
And it is not as though the elderly do not have their own faults and shortcomings. On occasion their discomfiture arises from the somewhat unreasonable expectations they have from those around them. I heard the story, for instance, of a retired army general who would sit down for breakfast at 7:30 am every morning, fully suited and booted, expecting the entire family to join him, also appropriately dressed for the occasion! Senior citizens also need to understand that times are changing and children and grandchildren need some private space.
In many matters from simple things such as food habits or entertainment choices, to major issues such as choosing a partner for marriage. To allow for some ‘lebensraum’ to use a German expression, is what they also need to learn. It is all about give-and-take!
It was an honour, and a privilege, for me to have been associated with the birth of the Elder Spring Response System, the first-of-its-kind connect centre for senior citizens in Hyderabad started by the Tata Trusts in collaboration with Vijay Vahini Charitable Foundation and the Department of Senior Citizens of the Government of Telangana.
The organisation brought to its functioning the characteristic efficiency and thoroughness associated with the house of the Tatas. It has made an excellent beginning, and I feel confident, will soon play a major role in transforming the geriatric care segment, by focusing on critical gap areas and creating an empathetic ecosystem.
(The writer is former Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh)
(The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of The Hans India)