A file image of a 84-year-old woman in the Indian city of Bhopal. According to the 2011 census the average life expectancy in India is 65 years of age. In 1950, it was only 36 years. (Photo by Indranil Mukherjee/AFP)
Many of us grew up in an age when three generations of families lived together, coexisting happily and productively. Not anymore.
Today, larger families are breaking into smaller living arrangements while divorce and separation further fragment the family unit. Provision of care for the vulnerable at both ends of the life span is becoming increasingly tenuous, especially for the frail and elderly.
We take it for granted that specialized care for the terminally ill is a necessity, and that this is best done in a hospice by professionals. So, the elderly are taken away and disconnected from the young and the middle-aged. When they die, they often die alone or among strangers.
In previous generations, the aged were respected and looked after by their families. They may often have been deemed opinionated and meddlesome, and sometimes they required constant care, but their place in the home was never questioned.
Why has this changed today? Perhaps the answer lies in the ambivalence of modern life.
In many ways, people today live with more freedom and opportunity. Technology has made life easier and more comfortable — even if each new gadget and upgrade makes life more expensive. But there's a change of perspective: life's ideals are judged by our accomplishments, especially financial achievements and the status that goes with it. This leaves little space for cultivating meaningful, healthy, long-lasting relationships.
Traditionally, relationships were fostered in the family. Nowadays, with single offspring and single parenting, the family unit has undergone a radical change. There is far less attention dedicated to nurturing relationships. Something has gone horribly twisted here.
With increasing incidences of drug abuse, child abuse, unwanted pregnancies, alcoholism, marital infidelity and divorce, a line can be drawn to the unstable family relationships. This reappears at a larger social level in urban crime, ethnic discord and racial hostility. Those who bear the brunt of such dysfunctions are usually the youngest and the eldest — especially if they are female.
Let's take a moment to consider the scenario of the elderly in India.
In 1950, just after independence, the average life expectancy was just 36 years. Sixty years later, the 2011 census revealed it had increased to 65 years. That year, there were 39.7 million people aged 70 and over in India, 3.28 percent of the population. Of this demographic, 20.3 million were women. As to be expected, 70 percent of this group lived in rural areas.
For most people in India aged 70 or over, the most positive aspect of their lives may be that they have, in fact, survived.
But how have they survived? How do we treat our senior citizens? In a word: shamefully. Most Indians tend to think they live in a society in which family values and respect for the elderly are present everywhere. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Global Age Watch Index ranks India as 71st out of 96 countries relating to care for the elderly. What does this care consist of? Three things mainly: an adequate provision of health services, a supportive infrastructure, and most importantly, independent economic means.
A lack of finances is a significant indicator because barely 10 percent of the elderly receive as much as 200 rupees per month, the amount instituted by the state pension scheme. In its annual report of 2014, the non-government organization HelpAge India showed that every second person in India aged over 60 suffers from abuse within their own family. This abuse can be verbal, physical and emotional, and the overriding cause is the older persons' economic dependence on their children.
Among those who are 70 years or older, a particularly hard time is had by women. This is not surprising, since women have a better physical survival rate and therefore a longer life expectancy than men. Many are widows — 80 percent according to the 2011 census — but it is nearly impossible for them to remarry given the persistent social condemnation of widow remarriage.
Most aged widows are poor, and sometimes desperately so. One reason for this is, until fairly recently, most housewives never worked outside the home, and thus very few had any employable skills in the marketplace. Further compounding this, women are usually precluded from financial matters and economic empowerment within their families. So, finding a job and sustenance in later life becomes even more difficult. Besides, since most inheritance patterns are patrilineal, women possess few assets and fewer savings, which increases their dependence upon their relatives.
Indian society's treatment of widows is perhaps unmatched in cruelty anywhere. Abandonment of widows is common, but so is open aggression toward them. And not just widows, the problems faced by aged and unmarried single women are as acute.
Part of the tragedy is living in a country which is locked in a time warp of its own making. Most Indians genuinely, though foolishly, believe their customs and values are far, far superior to those of other cultures, especially when compared to the west. Few will accept that in almost all the social indicators that assess quality of life, India is a dismal country, and far inferior to many other Asian countries.
The last 60 years have seen vast changes in society, most of them brought about by technology. Available medication and better nutrition have helped to sustain the lives of our grandparents from dying from disease and undernourishment.
People live longer today than they used to. But simply living is not enough. We need to build structures, starting with our families and continuing into the public sphere, to help the aged, especially women, to lead healthy and productive lives. This is the development challenge of the present decade.
Father Myron Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai.
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