What if there is a different side to the discussion on India’s demographic dividend? It is projected that India will become the world’s youngest country by 2020 with a median age of 29. But in our focus on leveraging this dividend, we are paying scant attention to another reality: India’s rising elderly population. In absolute numbers, India already ranks 2nd in the world, in the number of citizens in the 60+ age category, next only to China. Research reveals that by 2050, India will have one out of every six of the world’s elderly persons. It will be the second-largest home of people in the 80+ age group. Increase in life expectancy, coupled with nuclearisation of families, dependence for day-to-day maintenance and age-related difficulties pose a tough challenge to the lives of the elderly. With more than 50 million elderly people living below the poverty line and increasing crimes against senior citizens, their vulnerability is unquestionable. The problem is exacerbated for elderly women, due to their higher economic dependence. Seventy-one per cent of the elderly live in rural areas; for them, particularly those who are over 80, the situation is grimmer because of migration of younger relations and the poor quality of medical services. This profound shift taking place in the context of changing family relationships and severely limited old-age income support brings with it a variety of social, economic and healthcare policy challenges. As India’s population ages, availability of working-age people to support the elderly population will dwindle. As much as the demographic dividend, this reality, too, is a point of inflexion.
There is a need to urgently wake up to the situation, with the government, entrepreneurs, companies and non-profits joining hands to innovate solutions to address the needs of the elderly and prepare them for ageing with comfort.Over the past 10 to 15 years, several schemes for care and welfare of the elderly have been initiated by both the central and state governments. The government enacted a law called the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007 that aims to empower the elderly to receive maintenance and care from children or their legal heirs. Other measures include old-age pension, widow pension and disability pension. The National Programme for Health Care of the Elderly aims at providing preventive, curative, rehabilitative and promotional health care for the elderly through primary health care institutions by creating additional special infrastructure, medical and paramedical human resources, including referral services. The need is to effectively implement these measures across the country. Simultaneously, encouragement and incentives need to be given to social entrepreneurs to come into the space of elderly care. That is how the government’s efforts will get supplemented with a wider ecosystem of facilities and support services. A regulatory body could be established to appropriately channelise efforts and monitor quality. Appropriate entrepreneurship opportunities for the elderly, too, could be explored, taking into account their potential and experiences. This is reinforced through the thematic focus of International Day of Older Persons, 2017, attempting to acknowledge and promote contributions of the elder population towards families, communities and societies at large. There are significant learnings from our neighbours — China, Japan and Singapore. These countries are aggressively developing models for elderly care, with well-planned programmes and financial investments both for the urban and rural population. India must become a happy place to age in.
The author is lead, geriatrics, at Tata Trusts