Sunday, February 6, 2011

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 population in 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 is the rapid change in
social set-up in the country from joint to nuclear families, rise in instances of abuse and 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 are left to fend for
themselves in India. Ironically, a vast majority of the elderly population in the country live 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, seeking mercy-killing
unable to bear the torture of her grandchildren, is just the tip of the iceberg. Once in a while the media finds
time to report such heart-rending incidents. But a majority of such sad episodes go unreported. Film actor
AK Hangal and his son Vijay, both old and without income, had to endure suffering in silence. Only when
their plight became open, did succour pour in," says senior advocate MV Rajaram, arguing that 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 become even worse, social
scientists warn. In the next 15 years or so, the number of the old in the country will double and two-thirds of
them will be non-working i.e without their own source of income, if official statistics are any indication.
"In the absence of social security measures in India, only those in the organised sector or 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 or uninsured lot that lakhs
of Devudammas and Hangals live, suffering in silence, and hoping against hope for some government help, he
There should be special legislation for the aged, on the lines of the one for SCs and STs, 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 live longer, 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, life expectancy has become
the norm these days. People will increasingly live longer. While living a long life is a positive development,
what concerns more when you grow old is health expectancy i.e the age up to which you lead 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 present eight crore. It will touch
17.9 crore by 2026. While statistics tell us that India is gradually growing old, the country is ill-prepared to
meet the new reality. Oldage has its own health problems and India does not have specialised medical
departments for oldage medicine or geriatrics. The country does not have sufficient trained 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 immobility are 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 India really 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 pensions for the old,
adoption of senior citizens protection legislation with stern punishment for those who abandon their parents
in their oldage.
The Centre has enacted the Parents Maintenance Act calling for punishment of children in case of neglect of
their old parents. "But the punishment is simple, just three months. The law should be stringent. If need be,
IPC or CrPC should be amended," suggests N Ashwani Kumar, who specialises in Constitution laws.

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