The new age homes!

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Indians have long regarded old age homes with skepticism and some derision. Such homes, if well run, can provide much comfort, independence and dignity to the elderly, says Dr. Sheilu Sreenivasan.

Notwithstanding the holiness and sanctity of vanaprasthashrams meant for the fourth stage in Indian life, old age homes were being established in the early part of the 20th century for the destitute. As long as joint family systems were the pulse of family life, anyone not living under their protective umbrella meant such persons were destitute, with no one to care for them. Charitable and religious institutions thus took pity on such persons who needed to be given shelter in old age homes. Images of depressed and neglected old people waiting perennially for the visit of the non-existent son/daughter became juicy, sensational pictures for the media. Historically, therefore, old age homes have acquired a negative imagery in the Indian lexicon. There are about 5,000 registered old age homes currently.

The picture has changed since. It will be anachronistic to apply in the emerging Indian social polity a reformist social welfare approach to all old persons. Newer discoveries in ageing sciences – Gerontology and Geriatry – have to be scientifically comprehended and integrated into public and private responses to meet the demands of the ageing population across classes. Scientific innovations continue to lead the way to a better life for older people the world over. New avenues of drug development, molecular biology, and the genome project – all these will lead the way to a healthier and longer life. Making retirement homes with insights from such sciences befits today’s India and its emerging status. We need to respond to aspirations like: “We don’t want to simply retire from something; we should have something to retire to.” Retirement requires the invention of a new hedonism, not a return to the hedonism of youth, but a new meaning, a new lifestyle befitting the dignity of the old in India. For each and every class of the 60 plus.

Thus, the behavioural and perception changes of aged middle class Indians have to be taken into account – Indians who could be termed as “Independence babies” (1947 and after. From age 50 onwards a person is benchmarked the world over as the target audience for addressing ageing issues.). Business and governmental approaches must incorporate revolutionary new findings in brain/mind research.

Old age homes with a difference
To start with, new Old Age Homes need to be called differently with a ‘lifestyle’ emphasis built into the living provisions, such as our own ‘Dignity Lifestyle: Senior Citizens Retreat for Active Living’, which opened in March 2006 at Neral, 90 km from Mumbai. Many such retirement resorts have mushroomed in Indian cities, especially in the South. Secondly, the variety of requirements across the class segments need to give attention to aspects of elder care which will include activities that will fit the “productive ageing” norms championed by the UN.

There is no more scope for debates such as, “Is Old Age Home the route that India should take, aping the Western societies?” The socio-economic realities of families in India are such that whether we like it or not, older people are looking for alternative living arrangements. The newer issues of children migrating to other cities across the globe as well as prospects of longer life after retirement are making retirees look for livelier options than spending time in unfriendly cities that are singularly non-elder friendly in terms of infrastructure, security, medical insurance and age-specific care. The nation will do well to listen to the voice of senior citizens, a la Dignity Dialogue, a grassroots intervention media published once a month by Dignity Foundation.

While the 21st Century may be considered as the century of elderly persons, the 22nd will experience the phenomenon of “ageing of the aged”.Those over 80 years is the fastest growing segment of the population with the current 1% share in the total population expected to grow to 3.5% by the year 2050. The increase in life expectancy has resulted in a major shift in the age group of eighty years and over. During 2006-2050, while the overall population of India will rise by 40%, those over 60 years will increase by 270% and 80+ by 500%. This emerging trends calls for tremendous efforts to cope with new demands and challenges – economic, emotional and health. According to the NSSO Report 2004, the sex ratio of ageing population in rural areas is, there are 985 females per 1000 males, while in urban India, it is 1,046 females. Similarly, the dependency ratio is 12.5 in rural and 10.3 in urban India. 67% of the rural elderly are dependent on others. It is estimated that 6.7% senior citizens are confined to bed or home, while 4.5% live alone.

(The following is a lament by an elderly person, which is how, unfortunately, many of them perceive themselves.)
Akela hoon main, is duniya mein
koee saathee hai, to meraa saayaa
na to parawana, aur naa diwaana, main kisee mahafil ka
soonee soonee raahen thaamatee hain baahen, gham kise manzil ka
mai to hoon, raahee dil ka
akela hoon main
jaise kabhee pyare, jheel ke kinaare, hans akela nikale
waise hee dekho jee, ye manmaujee, maujon ke seenen pe chale
chaand sitaaron ke tale
akelaa hoon main

(I’m all alone
if there is any friend to me, then it’s my shadow,
I’m neither a lover nor a lunatic, of any congregation,
as these lonely paths take hold of me, who has the grief of destination now,
I’m the traveller of heart,
I’m all alone like a lonely swan, at the banks of the lovely lake,
see, these vagabonds, are travelling on the chests of waves,
under the light of moon and stars,
I’m all alone in this world)

The work of Dignity Foundation
Dignity Foundation has been working for senior citizens for over 21 years, and offers the 50 plus an enriching set of opportunities to lead a more dignified, secure, fun-filled and fulfilling life. Indians are living longer and healthier lives. The life expectancy of the average Indian is increasing, and the rates of mortality, morbidity, and disability among Indians over age 60 have steadily decreased. The Foundation holds customised events each year for the benefit of senior citizens, like Frontiers in medicine, Literary festival, companionship carnival and World Elders’ Day which is celebrated on October 1.

The business opportunity of providing elder care can well be gleaned through state-of-art provisions in even non-western economies such as Japan, China, Singapore, Malaysia, many of whom are also family-oriented societies. Hundreds of senior citizens approaching Dignity Foundation for such options have pushed us, a mere NGO, into building elder care residential homes. We strain every resource to establish benchmarks in elder care and to demonstrate how elders can be looked after in old age homes. Far from interpretations that see homes for the old as aberrations of Indianness and of family honour, and deriding responsible children who want to see their parents comfortably settled and taken care in old age homes, one has to take note of changes in thinking, changing attitudes, and realities of difficulties in taking care of parents. It is the seniors’ right to keep their head high and in self esteem. Wherever they live, senior citizens have a right to lead a life of dignity, with or without children. Retirement homes have to deliver that essential dignity.


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Dr. Sheilu Sreenivasan

Dr. Sheilu Sreenivasan, whose passion for the cause of senior citizens launched the organisation in 1995, is the Founder-President of Dignity Foundation. An M.A. in Psychiatric Social Work from Madras University, she took her Ph.D from Mumbai University in Sociology. After a seven year period in research she joined the publishing firm, Macmillan India and became Corporate Manager in Bangalore. She then became Head of Publishing in Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, in 1987. In Feb 2004, she was instrumental in setting up the Govt. of Maharashtra’s Institute of Empowered and Productive Ageing at Yashada, Pune.

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