- Somerset Maugham in his famous short story "The Lotus Eater" had portrayed the hapless condition of its protagonist Thomas Wilson. Mr. Wilson, who after the expiry of his annuity, had to wage a struggle for survival during the last six years of his life. After his one futile effort to finish himself with charcoal poisoning, he even lost his grit to commit suicide.
The ever increasing number of older people with fresh problems especially in developing countries like India is more a curse than a boon. In our country, a lucky few elderly people, either pension holders or comfortably well-off, enjoy the old age with sweet retrospection. For most of the elderly persons, the approach of old age is nothing but a menace and anxiety. Old age signifies a period of painful plodding towards death to them.
It was apprehended by many that the triumph of achieving longevity in life expectancy of the 20th century must turn into a nightmare as the care for the elderly would be a formidable challenge of the 21st century. The seemingly favorable demographic indicator of the last century has now posed the shape of "demographic time bomb". The steep rise in the proportion of the ageing population is one of the significant demographic shifts in world history. There were 205 million people who were over 60 in 1950. After half a century period the figure trebled to 606 million. An encore is expected in the next fifty years. By 2050, there will be two billion people of above 60. It is true that the proportion of the elderly people is relatively high in developed nations. But two third of the elderly population of the world is conglomerated in developing nations.
The burgeoning number of the elderly people in India quite keeps pace with the global scenario. There are about 105 million elderly persons including 10 million 'Oldest Old' (octogenarian or above) in India. The figure is apprehended to triple to 324 million with 48 million 'Oldest Old' by 2050.
Rapid industrialization and urbanization, disintegration of the centuries-old joint family system replaced by nuclear family one upsetting the safety halo of parents and grandparents, modernization, consumerism, individualism, migration in search of work, unemployment, economic stringency etc may be identified as the major factors behind the woes of the old. To add plight to it, the welfare of the elderly has been given low priority in our country. About 90% of the elderly are bereft of no form of official and social security. In the absence of institutional support, family support system which is considered adequate insurance against all hazards related to old age in our country has been deteriorating with the growing erosion of moral and traditional values. The elderly persons having sources of income like pension, property and bank balance are regarded milch cow to the younger members of the family. The ever-commoditization of the old age is gaining ground among the young generation. The elderly persons without source of income are considered dispensable by many. The elderly women are the worst sufferers. In India, generally due to wide gap of age between the spouses, women have to endure longer period of widowhood.
About 70% of the total elderly persons live in rural areas below poverty line. Their plight is beyond measure. They are neither capable of earning their livelihood nor are taken care of even by their kith and kin. Even their infirmity due to old age becomes so acute that they cannot move about begging alms for their sustenance. They have to embrace death unattended, uncared and unwept because they are considered burden of the family. The elderly people in urban areas with economically well-off have different problems. With fast growing nuclear family system outdating joint family one, elderly people are facing strange kinds of difficulties and problems. They have nobody to look after them round the clock. But in developed countries in Europe and other western countries and in the USA the governments take full responsibility of a citizen till the last day of his/her life. On the contrary, the life of the elderly persons in India is being more critical with the progress of time. Frequent reductions in the rate of interest on bank deposits and for the post office monthly income scheme coupled with the hike in the prices of almost everything have made the life of an old person uncertain and insecure.
It is a matter of grave concern that geriatric care still continues to be one of the most neglected zones in our country. With the promotion of existing life expectancy to 66 against 42 in 1947 in India, geriatric patients are increasing by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, there is lack of initiative on the part of the government to cope with the growing number of geriatric patients. There is stark paucity of trained geriatricians and nursing staff to attend separate geriatric units. Even the private hospitals are also reluctant to open full-fledged geriatric units in fear of poor returns.
The 'Oldest Old', whose physical and economic dependency level culminates in this stage, are the worst sufferers. They are not covered under any health related insurance scheme at this stage. Most of them are the victims of emotional and psychological tortures like 'Elderly Abuse', loneliness, negligence in the family. There is nothing more dreadful when the death of an elderly is wished by the other family members. In such a helpless situation they find no other way but to be baffled, disillusioned and shattered.
It is disheartening to note there is no other government welfare scheme except for the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme. Only senior tax payers and comparatively well-off elderly benefit from pro-senior citizen steps to render relief to the elderly persons. In the annual Budgets the government has promised to take some initiatives to remove the concerns of ailments and accidents of the aged persons but they are not sufficient to address this vast problem. Yet these are not sufficient.
The pension for the elderly persons living below poverty line must be increased in tune with inflation. Our government and NGOs must set up sufficient number of old age homes to provide service free of cost to the poor elderly persons. Senior citizens must be brought under various government health insurance schemes. Besides, to cope with the emerging number of elderly persons, government must encourage gerontology courses of study to make reciprocal number of geriatricians.
In this regard the apex court's recent directive to the Centre to revisit the National Policy on Older Persons which is more than 15 years old is welcome. Last but not the least, the experience and service of the larger number elderly people must be utilized appropriately to turn them into human resource instead of burden. We must not forget the adage, "Old is gold".