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     Volume 6 Issue 42 | November 2, 2007 |

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The Good and the Bad

Kavita Charanji

A husband and wife couple are confined to their house in South Delhi. The man (96) and the woman (88) suffer many old age complications. While the former was fit enough three years ago, a fall in the house laid him low. Now he is afflicted by weakness, a leaking heart valve and high blood pressure. His wife in turn has a brain tumour pressing against her pituitary gland which has affected her vision, hearing and hormones. She is also in an advanced stage of osteo arthritis She has to be carried to the bathroom or depend on a bed pan.

A 93-year-old man spends his time indoors. Going out for cards regularly until recently, he suffered breathing problems and his speech is slurred. However, he maintains a cheerful front as he is surrounded by his loving children and grandchildren. Just recently he celebrated his birthday with his extended family and took a child-like pleasure in receiving presents from his guests.

A retired 80-year-old doctor sometimes suffers from arthritis. That doesn't deter her from leading an active and satisfying life. Starting the day with a short walk to her Yoga centre, she then does household errands and often meets other ladies in her locality. She has a circle of friends who get together now and then. Besides this, she practices for a charitable organisation.

Old age is truly a mixed bag. If one is healthy it is great but suffer serious ailments then one has to be reconciled to dependence on one's children who themselves lead stressful lives with work, offspring and domestic chores. “It's a big responsibility,” confesses a friend who has to give her in-laws their medication, supervise the attendants and in between fit in time for her teenaged daughter and demanding husband. She gets little or no help from her sister-in-law (the daughter of the ailing couple) and it is with difficulty that she can take off for an outstation trip. Nevertheless hers is the voice of reason, “Tomorrow one's husband could get paralysed or I could be bed ridden. Sure as hell, our turn will come.”

Another middle-aged executive has to cope with his mother's failing sight. Leave alone go to the club as she used to in her younger days, she now stays in her room, occasionally reading from the Guru Granth Sahib. Twice at night she is taken to the toilet and has very little interaction with her grandchildren.

It is a blessing that the old in our part of the world can still depend to some extent on their children. Though modernisation, urbanisation and individualism have wrought havoc with the joint family structure, leaving many elderly people to their own devices, family support and care of the elderly are unlikely to disappear in the near future. However, prophets of doom say that there is likely to be a decrease in family care with the nation's economic development and modernisation.

One such case is that of a BPO employee who has to tend to her young children, home, a frequently absent husband and an aging and somewhat depressed father besides her demanding career. Though she would love to spend more time with her parent, the old man has to be content with catching up once or twice with his daughter and grandchildren at short notice over lunch or dinner.

Other problems that confront those in their twilight years are insufficient income, absence of social security, loss of social role and recognition and non-availability of opportunities for creative use of free time. However, as far as income goes, many service officers such as retired Brigadier Pritam Pal Singh report that their pension has escalated from a mere Rs 600 a month to Rs 20, 000 a month. And he is not one to sit back and live with memories of happier years. He is an avid reader, enjoys Western and Indian music and is keenly involved with conservation of monuments. Just recently he shot off a letter to the Archaeology Department about the identification and protection of the tomb of Khan Shahid, son of Giasuddin Balban. “ There is so much to do,” says Singh, who divides his time between his Delhi and Pune homes. Meanwhile, his two children he says are “affectionate and considerate. They care greatly for me and they will be here when I have a prostrate surgery.”

Neglected by society

The problems of old age vary according to age, socio-economic status and living status. As life expectancy (75 years and above) increases, the elders need more intensive and long term care which may increase financial stress in the family.

According to some estimates there are now 81 million elderly people in India and this number is expected to escalate dramatically to 178 million by 2030. The majority of the elderly are very poor and live in rural areas. The government pension scheme currently reaches only 2.76 million elderly people, mostly from urban areas.

So what's the solution? “The secret is to make the elders feel wanted. Caregivers need to develop coping skills. However I ask what will happen if my old in-laws become completely bedridden or develop Alzheimer's. Also one needs to get support from the other members of the family. Old age is inescapable and has to be taken in one's stride, though I am fearful of becoming a burden for my children,” says a homemaker.

A powerful voice for the elderly, particularly those in abject poverty in rural areas and urban slums, is that of the New Delhi-based HelpAge India. This pioneering organisation touches the lives of 15 lakh elders through its services every year. It also addresses itself to the needs of India's 81 million grey population so that they can live with dignity, independence and fulfillment.

Among HelpAge's schemes are:
*Sponsor a Grandparent programme under which 17,000 elderly people have been adopted.
*Advocacy through which the organisation enables older people to fight for their rights.
*Free cataract operations for around 30,000 people every year. These people can regain their independence subsequently.
*HelpAge supports old age homes, hospitals and day care centres.
*Income generation projects for the elders such as making of envelopes, <>diyas<> and candle making along with the making of <>papads<> and <>vadis<>, carpet weaving. Besides these HelpAge provides the fishing communities in the coastal areas with boats, fishnets and markets the fish. It also helps out by helping the poor undertake livestock rearing or opening small shops.
*The organisation has 52 mobile medicare units, equipped with free medicines, a doctor, a pharmacist and social worker. These units are targeted at the doorsteps of the elderly in rural areas and slums.
*Relief and rehabilitation programmes in Gujarat, coastal India and Jammu and Kashmir for older people.
*Helplines in Chennai and Bangalore to provide information and help to distressed older people.

Apart from the financially straitened elders, HelpAge also addresses itself to the emotionally disadvantaged victims of neglect, abuse or simply loneliness and isolation.

However, there are no easy solutions says Nidhi Raj Kapoor, director of communications of HelpAge . “The country is in a transitional stage and has been touched with modernisation and westernisation. What's more is that community structures neighbour visits, family get togethers have broken down. People have even died without their neighbours' knowledge.”

One way to beat such apathy as well as tackle the rising incidence of crime against the elders, she says, is a scheme called 'Dost' (friend), wherein beat constables keep in regular touch once a week with the elders in a locality.

The other major need is to create awareness about the Rs 250 a month pension scheme for all those who live below the poverty line. By and large these disadvantaged people are not aware of this right or how to access it. The end result is that many in areas such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar depend on middlemen to get their duea fter hefty cuts by these avaricious individuals.

Apart from HelpAge, there are two other organisations dealing with the problems of the aged. One is Dignity Foundation which works with the urban elderly and the other former actress Tina Ambani's Harmony Foundation. The latter, says Nidhi, “is more like a club where there are recreational facilities for a limited number of elderly people.”

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