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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Lonely future for India's elderly

It is lunch time at an home for the elderly in south Delhi.

About 30 people are eating rice, lentils and vegetable stew. All are in their late sixties or older and few seem particularly happy.

There are now more than 500 old people's homes in Delhi alone.

There is little of the camaraderie or banter one sees in such homes in developed countries. Stories like this one from 71-year-old Savitri Saveen might just explain why.

She was put into the home by her daughter.

"She had to go to the US, and she just put us here on the pretext that we would be here for only a couple of months," she explains.

"But they haven't come, so we are just staying here. We are still expecting that they will come."

In earlier days, people lived with their children when they were too old to work, but the urban middle class lifestyle that many people aspire to doesn't leave much room for aged parents these days.

But not everyone here is displeased about being in a home.


Sitting in the in sun on a pleasant day, a few people - mostly couples - say they prefer the peace and predictability of life in a home to their children¿s' houses.

The man who runs the home, Sri Ram Narang, says many of the people here escaped rather nasty situations among their families.

"All priority is given to money," says Mr Narang.

"If relations demand that elderly people hand over all their money, then they suffer," he explains.

"If they don't give it, they also suffer because they don't get co-operation".

There are exceptions.

In the kitchen of their home in Delhi, university professor Kum Kum Srivastava and her mother, Pushpa Manchandra are cooking lunch.

Joint family

Mrs Manchanda's husband died in 1977 and she moved in with her daughter's family not long after.

This is what is known in India as the joint family - three generations together under the same roof.

But things are changing, as Professor Srivastava points out.

"The joint family is breaking down, and it's the age of nuclear families with both the husband and wife working," she says.

"I think this a child-oriented society, not a parent-oriented one anymore."

Hardly a day goes by in India without a horror story in the press about elderly parents - abandoned or abused.

In one notorious case in Bombay last year, an old couple leapt to their deaths from their 10th floor flat. They had been driven to suicide by their children, squabbling over ownership of the apartment.

India is getting younger, not older. But it has more 60m men and women older than 65, and the problems of the elderly are multiplying.

Activists working for the rights of the old say nothing short of a sea change in public attitudes will begin to make up for their suffering.


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