India's Elderly Fear for Future

by Medindia Content Team on October 19, 2007 at 2:43 PM
India's Elderly Fear for Future

Eighty-seven-year-old Indrani Warner sits in her room at one of India's new homes for the elderly surrounded by the mementos of a lifetime.

Western-style old age homes are new to India, where children have long been known for revering and caring for elderly parents in a extended family system.


But the elderly are increasingly regarded as a burden as nuclear families become the norm against the backdrop of economic development that is rapidly breaking down traditions.

"It used to be you would grow old with your children around you but people can't count on that any longer," said Matthew Cherian, chief executive of HelpAge India.

"Values have changed with the economy speeding up. People are caught more on the treadmill of making money and that often means that looking after parents takes second place," he told AFP.

India is a young country -- a staggering 51 percent of its 1.1 billion population are younger than 25, and two-thirds are younger than 35.

The number of old people is also growing with 113 million Indians expected to be older than 60 by 2016, up from 81 million now. That figure is seen swelling to 179 million by 2026.

"Midnight's children are turning 60," said Cherian, using an Indian catchphrase to describe people born when the country became independent in 1947. "There has been no official planning for their old age."

Around 10 percent of India's working population are covered by formal old-age social security schemes, such as government pensions, according to global consultancy McKinsey. The rest depend on savings or their children.

Experts are warning that India will need many more elderly residences than the paltry 3,000 or so that exist now as children become increasingly unable, or unwilling, to look after their aging parents.

"I didn't want to be too much trouble for my children and I didn't want to live alone," said Warner at Godhuli in New Delhi, considered the capital's best elderly institution with its big windows and pleasant garden.

"It's too frightening living alone when you're old, you see news reports of old people being murdered," said Warner, whose two children visit often. Others in the home consider her the lucky one as many don't get visitors at all.

"Often you have two working people and they don't have time to look after parents or go and see them or they live far away," said caretaker Alka Mathur.

Tales of elderly abandonment now have become so common they are fodder for India's Bollywood movie machine.

In a recent hit comedy, "Munnabhai Lage Raho" ("Carry on Gandhi"), a well-off banker unceremoniously dumps his father outside an old people's home.

Fighting back tears, the father enters the home expecting to be greeted with sympathy from the residents, but instead they find his plight as entertaining.

"Join the club," they tell him.

Nor is proximity to one's children any guarantee of a happy retirement.

In New Delhi, HelpAge receives 300 complaints a month of bad treatment, including from parents whose children have taken their property but won't care for them.

Munni Devi, 64, and her heart-patient husband made headlines in Delhi this month as they slept on the pavement while their four sons occupied their two-storey house.

"All of them are financially independent but refuse to look after us. We're constantly taunted by our daughters-in-law when we ask for food," said Devi.

Said HelpAge's Cherian: "What happens is the children want their parents' property but then don't want the responsibility of looking after their parents."

Such cases of callous or even macabre mistreatment are not isolated.

Earlier this year in the southern city of Hyderabad, the well-off family of a 75-year-old cancer patient decided to burn her alive at a crematorium because they did not want to pay for further treatment.

She was saved when the crematorium staff noticed her stir and called police.

At the other end of the spectrum, many elderly people are abandoned at railway stations and crematoriums by poor offspring who can't afford their care.

Other elderly people commit suicide because they have no money to survive.

Lawmakers have drafted legislation to force children to look after their parents. It starkly spells out the predicament of the elderly, noting a "gradual but definite withering of the joint family system".

A number are "perceived as a burden" and may face "violence and neglect," the bill says.

Penalties in the act include jail and fines. If there is mistreatment after children are given property, the law say they can be forced to return it.

But most parents are too demoralised, destitute or frail -- or all three -- to begin a battle in India's clogged court system where plaintiffs could die before getting a ruling.

Also "very few people will want to wash their problems in public," said HelpAge's Cherian.

Source: AFP
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