Good news can also be bad news. A classic example of this paradox is life expectancy in India. Unlike the Rupee, it has been slowly but steadily rising and now stands at close to 70 years. Scare, a bigger scare and statistics. The 2011 Census pegged our greying population at more than 10 crore. Projected to climb to over 17 crore by 2026 and 30 crore by 2050. That should send alarm bells ringing. Because we are hardly ready and equipped to care for our elders. Not in terms of infrastructure. Not with existing mindsets that are characterised by selfishness and cruelty. Not with our government policies that border on tokenism.
‘Piku’ – the Bollywood film in which the inimitable Amitabh Bachchan plays a 70 year old Bhaskor with chronic constipation, presented a glimpse into the life of a senior citizen. And the challenges that care givers have to grapple with everyday. Geriatric care is in its infancy in our country! A few years ago, a Tata Institute of Social Sciences survey estimated a requirement of 8 lakh geriatric care professionals. There are specialists and super specialists for every ailment. Senior citizens may need to consult cardiologists, neurologists, orthopedicians, diabetologists, nephrologists, urologists, gastro enterologists at different points. Each medication invariably will have side effects that another doctor will end up treating. Holistic health care is hardly ever the norm. This is the scenario even in our big cities. It gets worse with a United Nations Population Fund India Ageing Report, 2017, that places 71% of our elders in rural India, with inadequate access to quality health care.
A good number of children, whose parents may have taken loans, sold their property, or pledged their jewellery to cough up Shylockian capitation fees or fund their education abroad, settle overseas, abandoning their parents. Many who live in the same city may view them as a burden and abdicate their responsibility in a shameful display of selective amnesia, conveniently brushing aside all the sacrifices made by their parents. The existence of old age homes, with all the euphemisms like ‘retirement communities’ are a blot on our society. As long as children are alive and healthy and have the means, it is their duty to care for their parents.
On that note, it is true that even if the spirit is willing, the finances may be scarce to look after them. What is the percentage of middle class children who can afford medical insurance, treatment, nurses and attendants at home? How many elders have savings, get substantial pension or say, earn rental income or interest on their investments to foot these twilight expenses?
Care is not just monetary. Do we have Elderly Friendly Homes within the family? This would mean anti skid mats with grab rails in the bathrooms, switches within their easy reach, calling bells, mobile phones with bigger screens and keypads.
Do we have enough geriatric specialists or the practice of house calls by doctors? Do the elderly get preference in hospital appointments? In Travel Reservations? Dedicated parking spaces? Discounts in medicines and healthcare?
Most mediclaim policies shut their doors on senior citizens above 75 years. Those that don’t, insist on a slew of tests and make the policy attract first year exclusions or even a ‘no claim’ upto 4 years, defeating the purpose of insurance for the elderly. Then comes the fuzzy logic. The older you get and the less your capacity to pay premium is, the higher is the slab! Then there is the Co-Payment bummer, which is mandatory payment of about 30 per cent on every accepted claim. So if the hospital bill is a lakh, the senior citizen has to pay thirty thousand, with the insurance company settling only seventy thousand.
Now this is what I just don’t get. In keeping with Plato’s words: “it is for the elder man to rule and for the younger to submit”, most of our political leaders are senior citizens. What have they done for their own age group? For those who don’t have the luxury of free or subsidised accomodation, orderlies, free telephones and cars that elected representatives enjoy? Yes, under Section 80 D of the Income Tax Act, there is a tax rebate of about thirty thousand rupees on mediclaim for dependant parents who are senior citizens. Yes, they passed the Maintenance & Welfare of Parents & Senior Citizens Act, 2007 and suggested amendments in 2018 to bring sons in law and daughters in law within its ambit, remove the ten thousand rupee cap on maintenance and push up penal provisions to a 6 month jail term for abandoning parents. But is this enough on the ground? Has it stopped children from neglecting or ill-treating their elderly parents? Have cases of children usurping the property of their parents and throwing them out come down?
We take pride in calling ourselves a Welfare State. Our Directive Principles of State Policy have provisions for workers, maternity relief, children, animal husbandry, even monuments. But the only passing reference to the welfare of senior citizens is in Article 41 of the Constitution in terms of “public assistance” in cases of “old age, sickness and disablement.” We take pride in the fact that unlike the West, we don’t need a Mothers Day or a Fathers Day to show our love to our parents. But when was the last time we took our parents out for a meal, to a movie, out shopping, to the beach, for a pedicure? We take pride in our respect for ‘Matha, Pitha, Guru, Deivam’. Or the Biblical Commandment to ‘Honour Thy Father & Thy Mother’. How many of us spend time talking to them?
We don’t need laws to look after the elderly. We need a heart. And patience. The way our parents took care of us before we could speak or walk. Traits that are such a rarity. A few months ago, as I was leaving the cabin of the Chief Cardiologist of Kauvery Hospital Dr.K.P. Suresh Kumar, after a consultation for my 78 year old dad, he asked me a simple question: “Sanjay, do you think this is the last generation to look after their parents?” I’m still pondering over that poser. At first blush, the answer is frightening. And saddening. If the present disturbing trend of neglect continues, a time may come when parents are forced to start feathering their nests much before their retirement to fend for themselves later in life, inevitably at the cost of what their children can get in their formative years. A parenting overhaul on the cards? Future Shock 2.0?
(Sanjay Pinto is an Advocate practising at the Madras High Court, a Columnist, Author, TV Political Commentator, Public Speaking Mentor & Former Resident Editor of NDTV 24×7)