The gender of ageing

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While ageing in the Indian society can itself be an unpleasant experience, the elderly women have it worse. It’s time they were given their due privileges and recognition, says Shoma A. Chatterji.

Ageing, at first glance, does not appear to discriminate on grounds of gender. But a closer look reveals cracks that might not apply, to the same degree, to old men. Men might not be as vulnerable to distress and miseries in old age as women. The main reason is that women in India form a small percentage of the working population. Thus, they are denied the retirement benefits that working men have access to when they retire from work. An interesting finding emerged in the results of a survey conducted by the Calcutta Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology, started in 1988, through a questionnaire distributed among men and women about to retire. While 61.23 per cent of the male respondents spoke of economic problems as a major off-shoot of retirement, a significant percentage of 40.9 among the females claimed that they did not anticipate any problems at all. This sounds ironical in a social environment where old women are constantly being edged out of their own homes, and their children’s homes when they lose their husbands.

Patriarchy has seen to it that a major share of movable and immovable assets within an extended Indian family, including financial documents and land, are managed and controlled by the men in the family. They are held in the names of the women – wives and daughters-in-law, true, but purely for purposes of tax evasion. These women have no control over these assets even when the male head of the family passes away or becomes senile. The control automatically passes over to the son or sons and the old woman is left in the lurch – financially speaking. In nuclear families, the mother or unmarried older sister has to live with grown-up children or brothers and sisters who have their own families. While some children, who lead working lives, might look upon an ageing mother as a blessing in disguise/unpaid babysitter/ nurse/ cook – all rolled in one, this is more an exception than the rule.

Where age is not a barrier
There are outstanding women who are as active as women half their age despite having crossed the sixty-year barrier that divides the senior citizens from the rest. Among them are Asha Bhonsale, Sonia Gandhi, Kiran Bedi, Shabana Azmi, Sharmila Tagore, Sheila Dixit, author Shashi Deshpande, dancer, teacher and choreographer Sharon Lowen, Arundhati Bhattacharya, Chairperson of SBI bank, theatre person Usha Ganguly among many others, “Ageing does not mean slowing down. In celebration of this fact, Harmony for Silvers Foundation proudly honoured 10 ‘silver’ achievers for their contributions towards the well being of the society,” Foundation chairperson Tina Ambani said when the awards were launched in 2007.

Indian women form a significant majority of the elderly population in India. Estimates state that there are 99 men to every 100 women belonging to the age-group of 60 to 64 years in developing countries. In the age-group of 80 plus, the male-female ratio tilts against the males with 69 males to every 100 women. The position of single women is more precarious because few are willing to take care of non-linear relatives. A majority of widows have no independent source of income, and the worst nightmare for them is old age. P.N. Mari Bhat of the Population Research Centre in Dharwad, concludes from his study on Widows and Widowhood Mortality in India that widows have a higher mortality rate than women whose husbands are alive. Around 50 per cent of widows in India are under the age of 60.

The belief that widows are taken care of by their parental families is a myth, especially in rural India where less than six per cent live with their in-laws or parents while 10 per cent live with their married daughters. Around 60 per cent get regular support from their sons, 16 per cent are cared for by daughters, 9 per cent by brothers, 5 per cent by parents and 3 per cent by in-laws. No study on widowhood gives an account of the castaway widows of Varanasi and Vrindaban who are totally shunned, their families having left them for dead. Pensions for widows are limited and arbitrary. The eligibility and amounts differ from state to state with Kerala forking out a meagre `70 a month regardless of the widow’s other sources of income, class, age or whether she has an adult son. The Karnataka government raised widow pension from Rs.50 to Rs.75 a month in 1994.

In India, women with sons alone can rely on domestic support from them in old age. But changing behaviour patterns among the young, resulting from (a) pressures of inflation, (b) shortage of housing space in urban metros, (c) the steadily increasing stress on consumerism, (d) the declining importance given to emotions and sentiments, and (e) the rising costs of raising children have all but wiped out the possible support aged women can expect their sons to give them. In terms of health care services too, old women are placed on the wrong end of the welfare axis because the entire focus of health care for women in India is on family planning, and mother-and-child care. Old women find no place in policy decisions covering the health of women.

The surprising UN move
In this negative environment, it came as a pleasant surprise when a United Nations (UN) Expert Group Meeting on Integration of Ageing and Elderly Women into Development held in 1991 took constructive and positive steps towards harnessing the productive capabilities of older women, so that (a) they can create and sustain a financially independent future, and (b) their productivity can be used for the betterment of the nation in general, and the institution of the family in particular. The Meeting recognised that major efforts had to be made to ensure the access of elderly women to basic education and information on the ageing process, learning skills – both traditional and non-traditional, and retraining as and when called for.

Older women have the potential to make valuable contributions to society reaching beyond the limited and rigid framework of their immediate families. They constantly persevere to put their experience gained from life to productive use for social benefit. For example, older women are often called upon to attend to the sick and the dying.

Besides formal education, Participatory Rural Approval (PRA) provides ways to learn with and from older people, women especially since it has been observed that women have a perspective of their communities completely different from men and this perspective can make a greater impact on the economic and social lives of these communities. The PRA experiment combines a number of approaches so that a community can conduct its own analysis and planning and share its experience with professionals. It is here that older women can be more helpful and creatively productive than older men.

Older women have the potential to make valuable contributions to society reaching beyond the limited and rigid framework of their immediate families. They constantly persevere to put their experience gained from life to productive use for social benefit. For example, older women are often called upon to attend to the sick and the dying. They also hand down their traditional modes of learning and experience to the next generation such as grandmother’s medicines, pre and post-natal health care for mother and infant, household hygiene, diet and nutrition. Such services go unrecognised and unpaid because they cannot be quantified in economic terms. Old women play a vital role in transmitting the accumulated wisdom and knowledge they have gained over their lifetime to the generations of the present and the future. They also contribute significantly to the maintenance of traditions and values that need to be upheld for sustaining our cultural roots.

The world offers ample examples of elderly women who are still actively taking part in rebuilding the lives of refugees traumatized by disaster or war. The political participation of elderly women in world politics is now a part of living history. Many elderly women have been elected as the administrative and executive heads of their respective states. Women supposedly in the margins, continue to cook and care and nurse and clean and take care of the family marketing and budgeting, long after they have crossed sixty. Grandmothers are known to be the best educators of their grandchildren, handing down to them, tales of mythology and history, of wisdom and fables, no longer taught in formal educational institutions.

Yet, these contributions are completely ignored when the same women need to fall back on some kind of emotional support from the very families they nurtured through their lives. Ageing, especially among women, is still sadly taken to be a purely biological inevitability. Most women still consider menopause as the end of the world. What we seem to forget is that age is a cultural category. Its meaning and significance vary both historically and cross-culturally. It is time we began to challenge the stereotyping of ageing women as an assumed homogeneity. Class, race, gender and culture can counter biological factors. Thankfully, there is growing research interest in this field, not only in the experience and ethnography of the aged, but also in the specific constructions of “old age” across cultures and through time, with special attention being paid to elderly women.


Shoma A. Chatterji

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards.

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