Problems of the elderly - part 1: Right to dignified life emerges the major challenge as health expectancy takes centrestage
By Syed Akbar Right to dignified life has now emerged as a major challenge for the elderly populationin the country. With scientists and health planners predicting long life for Indians in the next few decades,the issue of right to dignified life in oldage gets all the more important. In the absence of exclusive Constitutional guarantee for the old, what causes concern isthe rapid change in social set-up in the country from joint to nuclear families, rise in instances of abuseand maltreatment of the aged, and lack of financial and health security for people in the evening of their life.While the elderly are protected by the state in developed nations through social security measures, they areleft to fend for themselves in India. Ironically, a vast majority of the elderly population in the countrylive at the mercy of their children, or on the charity of others begging in the streets. "The case of Majji Devudamma, the 110-year-old woman from Visakhapatnam district, seekingmercy-killing unable to bear the torture of her grandchildren, is just the tip of the iceberg. Once ina while the media finds time to report such heart-rending incidents. But a majority of such sad episodes gounreported. Film actor AK Hangal and his son Vijay, both old and without income, had to endure suffering insilence. Only when their plight became open, did succour pour in," says senior advocate MV Rajaram, arguingthat there should be a permanent mechanism to support the old people in need even before they seek help. With the number of old people fast growing in India, the situation is going to becomeeven worse, social scientists warn. In the next 15 years or so, the number of the old in the country willdouble and two-thirds of them will be non-working i.e without their own source of income, if official statisticsare any indication. "In the absence of social security measures in India, only those in the organised sectoror in government service are protected after retirement through social security (PF-linked) pension. The government is silent on the uncovered lot," says social scientist SS Rao. And it is among this uncovered oruninsured lot that lakhs of Devudammas and Hangals live, suffering in silence, and hoping against hope for somegovernment help, he argues. There should be special legislation for the aged, on the lines of the one for SCs andSTs, giving them special protection. Any abuse of the elderly should be dealt with strong penal action. Thanks to advancement in medicine and health research, human beings are destined to livelonger, may be for more than 100 years. Before Independence most of the people died before they turned 50 Long life does not come without the associated risk of health. The focus should now be on "life expectancy"or healthy living, observes eminent biotechnologist Dr Dronamraju Krishna Rao. "What the old people now need is health expectancy. Whether we seek it or not, lifeexpectancy has become the norm these days. People will increasingly live longer. While living a long life is apositive development, what concerns more when you grow old is health expectancy i.e the age up to which youlead a healthy life. If you are healthy it does not matter whether you live for 100 or more," he points out. India will have 11.3 crore people older than 60 years by 2016, as against the presenteight crore. It will touch 17.9 crore by 2026. While statistics tell us that India is gradually growing old, thecountry is ill-prepared to meet the new reality. Oldage has its own health problems and India does not havespecialised medical departments for oldage medicine or geriatrics. The country does not have sufficienttrained geriatric medical or paramedical staff to tend to the needs of the elderly and the diseases they encounter. Schizophrenia, dementia, Alzheimer's disease, loss of eyesight and hearing and immobilityare the major health issues for which the government should immediately come out with action plan.Besides health, financial, social and physical security are the areas that need to be addressed if Indiareally respects its old, says MT Shyam Kumar of Senior Citizen's Forum, Hyderabad. "The old need freedom from additional years of suffering poverty, pain or disability,"says Shyam Kumar emphasising the need for oldage homes in government sector, increased monthly pensionsfor the old, adoption of senior citizens protection legislation with stern punishment for those whoabandon their parents in their oldage. The Centre has enacted the Parents Maintenance Act calling for punishment of children incase of neglect of their old parents. "But the punishment is simple, just three months. The law should bestringent. If need be, IPC or CrPC should be amended," suggests N Ashwani Kumar, who specialises in Constitutionlaws.