The age of concern

Print edition : June 15, 2007

AT AN OLD-AGE home in New Delhi. More and more senior citizens find themselves living in such homes because there is nobody willing to look after them.-RAJEEV BHATT

It is necessary to formulate a policy to ensure that the elderly get their basic requirements. It will provide a sense of security to the aged and youth alike.

People expect old men to die, They do not really mourn old men. Old men are different. People look At them with eyes that wonder when... People watch with unshocked eyes; But old men know when an old man dies.

But what Ogden Nash does not say in his poem is that old men have to live, as do old women. And that is the problem. The poet got it slightly wrong; it is not that the old do not die - they do, but increasingly they take a great deal of time to do so.

This is slowly becoming a concern that is spreading and in many cases in ways that are not very pleasant. There are cases of old people seeking the protection of courts against importunate children who either want the elderly to vacate their houses or to sell the houses to builders.

There are sadder cases of old parents being turned out of their houses, or being refused care by their children. And then, there are the aged who have no one to look after them.

A handful of voluntary organisations are doing dedicated work to help the aged, but their help is not enough. The fact is that, though the population becomes greyer, there does not appear to be any coherent policy being considered to address the problems arising out of this.

The result is that the prospect of growing old is now a terrifying one, particularly for those who are dependent on their children or relatives. Death for these people would be a longed-for solution, but unfortunately is not something that comes when one wants it. Meanwhile, age brings with it illnesses, feebleness, the need for special diets and other requirements that are a great trial for families with limited incomes.

It would be entirely wrong to paint children as villains. In many cases they earn modest amounts and the elderly may need more than they can provide - medicines, tests, special food and care, which can be on a daily and continuing basis. How can they manage? There are children to bring up, households to run and, more often than not, both husband and wife have to work. Often, the unending strain and tension is just too much, and the love and caring of past years gives way to bitterness, even a simmering anger and resentment that can burst out in the form of cruel words or even harsh action.

India has, more or less, still held on to strong family ties. This is particularly true of the more `traditional' families. In metropolitan areas, there may be more instances of this breaking up, of the old being pushed out, pushed aside, or sent to old-age homes. But by and large the ties have endured, for now, at least. The concern is that the increasing strain in urban and rural areas will reach intolerable levels.

This is what makes it so urgent that a coherent and robust policy for the aged be formulated. The answer may not be in old age homes so much as in providing the aged with aid that will lessen the burden on the family. It could be a reasonable pension and not the comically tiny amounts now given to a select few - amounts that do not exceed Rs.200 or 300 a month - but something that ensures them food and other necessities. It could be medical aid that is easily available and does not subject old people to the unspeakable horrors of, government-run hospitals. It could be day-care facilities. Or it could be a mix of all these and other elements.

Of course it will be expensive, but so are other schemes like the Rural Employment Guarantee Programme, the mid-day meal programme for children and other such programmes for which the state provides funds. The expense will have to be provided for, and ways and means explored to lessen the burden on the public exchequer. Over time, perhaps, some kind of fund can be created with contributions from all able-bodied persons and organisations or by other means.

What must be accepted is that the problem deserves as much attention as primary education and childcare. Caring for the young means an investment in the future; caring for the old is the provision of a sense of security across the board to all those who are able-bodied working people today and will, inevitably, one day become old. That sense of security is not a luxury but an essential input to the quality of work that a man or woman does. It is an essential input to ease the tensions that build in them as they grow older, which in turn affect their well-being and health in their later years.

And it is, finally, a means of measuring the nature of our society and our civilisation. That, again, is no esoteric concept to be assessed and discussed by scholarly bodies nor be the subject of learned discourse in seminars and lectures. It is a vital aspect of the way we are as a people. We have, as a society, a strong Army, Navy and Air Force. We know why we have them. We are supposed to have a strong, effective police force. We must have a strong social system that protects and cares for the aged. The difference is that, at present, we do not know why we must have it.

But that may not be as worrying as what seems to be apparent in every State and in the central government; our policy-makers have no idea why this is needed either. This is dangerous. A little introspection will make it clear why it is dangerous. One can only hope this introspection will be something that the authorities will do sooner, rather than later.

This extract from a poem Old Age Gets Up by the English poet Ted Hughes may help:

The light at the window, so square and so same So full-strong as ever, the window frame A scaffold in space for eyes to lean on, Supporting the body, shaped to its old work, Making small movements in gray air Numbed from the blurred accident Of having lived, the fatal, real injury Under the amnesia Something tries to save itself - searches For defences - but words evade Like flies with their own notions. Old age slowly gets dressed Heavily dosed with death's night Sits on the bed's edge Pulls its pieces together Loosely tucks in its shirt

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