Thursday, February 4, 2010

India’s Elderly: A long and lonely walk

Now that the political tributes to the late Jyoti Basu have sort of ceased, examining the last years of his life, highlights for me a concern that we in this country have largely neglected. The thought first came to mind when the outgoing west Bengal governor, Gopal Krishna Gandhi went to pay his farewell calls to the late Jyoti Basu. As a gift, Gandhi, brought along a stack of books for Basu.

Jyoti Basu accepted the gifts graciously but commented wryly through his aide, Jyoti Krishna Ghosh, that due to age, he could neither see, nor hear nor read properly and could even barely carry out a conversation. It would have been a difficult time for a man whose mind remained sharp to the end and who in his time led the state for over two decades to be reduced to such a sad state.

While India is often hailed as the land of young people, it is also a land with a significant number of elderly people. The number of people who are elderly in India was 77 million in 2001and it is anticipated that by 2021 it will reach 137 million. India now has the second largest aged population in the world. Yet while the young are hailed as the citizens and leaders of tomorrow and other such soubriquets, the elderly, the leader and builder of our yesterdays usually are left to live lonely and unfulfilled lives with little attention paid to their wants and needs.

Euthanasia or even assisted suicide is banned in India, although given the physical and emotional deprivation that many of our elderly population are forced to live in, many have from time to time opted for this. Some traditional practices like the Jain practice of Santhara or voluntary fasting to death when one believes that one’s life has served its purpose are tolerated; this is not a mainstream tradition. So given that advances in medical science usually now ensures a longer life span than was possible a generation ago and given that euthanasia and its likes are banned and rightly so, what is one to do? Is it fine to just consign the elderly to the pages of history and allow them to live physically but deprived of all that makes life meaningful.

The fact that Indian society is getting fragmented today has only added to the problem. Not only is the extended family passé, event the sense of community is fast disappearing. Elderly grandparents are now opening Facebook and Skype accounts to keep some semblance of family in a widely dispersed universe. We know, they know , everyone knows that a virtual community is just that “virtual” and it can never replace actual face to face human bonding , and neither do social networking sites have any such pretensions.

Although it looks for the moment that there is no way out of this one way ticket to gloom, it would be nice if gerontology had a higher profile in the country than it currently does. While geriatrics, while deals with the medical aspects of ageing has some visibility, there is very little going on in terms of the social, mental and other processes that have to do with ageing and tries to come up with solutions and options. Civil society responses to the elderly and their plight are limited in scope and number, although this is slowly changing. Meanwhile, denied death and also denied an abundant life, our senior citizens live in a perpetual twilight of despair.


The unsure ascetic said...


adee said...

its a sad truth, but i don't think its a new phenomenon. elderly have always been given this kind of treatment in a largely agrarian society like ours. and that 'jitne hath, utni kamayi' mentality didn't change after industrialization. family members who were incapable of providing for or adding to the family income have been usually relegated to the corners of homes and collective consciousness. with more education, there is some bit of awareness, but what happens within a family remains majorly hidden.

saahilk said...

It's rather unfortunate that the elderly people are neglected in India. I was reading an article on the Jaago Re site the other day. This article mentioned that there are over 100 million elderly people (65 plus)in India. The astonishing fact is that just 1 million people are being taken care of!