Last year, I visited my mother’s relatives in New Jersey. Due to certain health problems, her aged aunt was dependent on oxygen cylinders. She moved from India because of the lack of facilities in the country. At first when I saw her, I felt sorry for her condition and wondered how difficult it was for her and the family. Nobody wants to live on a wheelchair. Nobody wants to carry a cylinder around with them. Nobody wants to spend his or her time carrying a cylinder around for someone. I assumed that their lives must be restricted to the house and going across the block. But as I learnt more about their daily lives, I felt sorry and worried for the aged back in India.
The aunt and her husband had enrolled themselves at a daycare. The day care has a pick up-drop service. The bus arrives at their doorstep at around 9 a.m. and drops them back in the evening. At the centre, they have activities, workshops and food arranged for them for the day. They have regular health check ups as well. My aunt proudly showed us the crafts she made at different workshops. I felt at ease knowing that their lives are more than the illness; that they are not entirely dependent on their children to get through the day. Then, I thought about the aged I know of back at home. Most of the senior citizens I know of have their days limited to reading the papers, watching television, going for a walk if their health permits and attending the occasional events organised by their communities or clubs for them. Although there are a limited few who continue to use their time productively, live active lives and can live independently; most have no activity to fill up their time and are majorly dependent on their children.
The joint family system in India is gradually decreasing where three generations lived together ensuring that there was always someone at home to look after the grandparents and the kids. Women are stepping out of homes and joining the workforce. Families are choosing to be nuclear and the senior citizens are left to look after themselves. Even in families where they live with their children, with both the husband and the wife working, there isn’t anyone around to assist them at every step. For financially well to do families, this problem has got to do more with how the aged spend their time and how they are treated by their children. Even in financially stable families, there have been events of ill treatment of aged parents. In 2014, a three-year-long study by HelpAge India estimated that every second senior citizen faced abuse from relatives. Rich families can hire a caretaker without much difficulty, access technologies that help their aging parents, enroll into clubs to keep them occupied. It is not that difficult if there is money, but what about those who do not have the finances to access these facilities? The problems faced by the financially unstable or those in poverty as against the seniors citizens who have money are, without a doubt, more but the underlying issue is how we, as individuals and as a society, treat them.
This is where retirement homes, daycares for senior citizens or recreation centres dedicated for senior citizens come in. Dignity Foundation, HelpAge India, Silver Inning Foundation, Adhata Trust Foundation among others are working towards this cause. These foundations, among other things, are establishing community centers, providing training for the elderly in the slums, providing simple services to seniors to enable them to continue leading an independent life and carry on with activities. There are facilities available; but the problem is there are not enough to help tackle the problems of elderly abuse, loneliness and simply aging with dignity. More such centres, which are accessible to both the rich and the poor, will enable children to continue working without worrying about their aging parents at home, bring harmony between two generations, allow the women who stay at home to take care of the seniors to join the workforce or simply live their lives, reduce the percentage of mistreatment of the old, enable them to enjoy their day to day lives, reduce loneliness and depression amongst the old thus improving their overall mental health. A lot of times when children choose to move out of the city or to a different home or work late, they are blamed for neglecting the parents or even looked down upon as not caring enough when in reality, they do. I know women in multiple families whose days are either dependent on the aged in the house. Setting up daycares, community centres, retirement homes, senior citizen clubs or simple awareness drives can tackle most of these problems.
In 2007, the Parliament passed The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act requiring the government to set up old age homes for senior citizens in every district. A draft BMC policy in 2013 envisioned one day-care centre for seniors in every municipal ward in Mumbai — which would mean a total of 227 across the city and suburbs. Both remain unimplemented. The 2011 census counted 103 million senior citizens in India. If they were a country, India’s elderly would be a nation larger than Germany and the Netherlands combined. Despite this number, they continue to be neglected. There’s only one question to ask here while we continue to neglect this group of individuals – How would you like to live your last years in this world?
I see my grandparents. They are happy and content people. My grandparents live a simple routine where nothing changes. They wake up, read the newspapers, have their lunch, take an afternoon nap, go for a walk every evening, eat an early dinner, watch a soap or news on the television and sleep. Recently, my maternal grandfather learnt how to use Google and Netflix and he is ecstatic. It is almost as if a kid got new toys. Now, he has something to spend his time on. He browses the internet for information and he enjoys watching his movies on his own in his own time now. All that had to be done was to teach him how to operate something. Old people are like kids; it is not difficult to make them happy. A little goes a long way. The world is progressing and mindsets are changing but with all this rush, we cannot leave those very people, who have helped us to be where we are, behind in desolation. While the society as a whole may take time to give the senior citizens their rights and the treatment they deserve, on an individual level we all can ensure that we do our bit.
Shivangi Adani is a Volunteer Researcher at One Future Collective.
Featured image: Time