As a young married couple in the 1960s, Mr & Mrs Singh both of whom were doctors, lived in a traditional Indian family, sharing a New Delhi home with Mr Singh’s parents. The young couple had extra help looking after their three children, and later ensured the seniors were well cared for as they aged.
Today, Mr and Mrs Singh now 82 and 79 respectively, live in very different circumstances. Their three adult children – and six grandchildren – all live abroad. So the elderly couple rely primarily on hired domestic help to meet their basic needs in an increasingly-chaotic and crowded city.
“Delhi is hard for old people,” Mr Singh says. “In the neighbourhood, everybody used to know everybody. Now there are neighbours here we don’t know and they never talk to us. Social isolation has increased. Transportation is a big problem.”
The Singh are part of a little discussed demographic group now posing a new challenge for India: the elderly, whose numbers are rising fast at a time when the traditional extended family safety net is being eroded by rapid social economic transformation.
About 100m Indians are above the age of 60, the world’s second-largest senior population after China. That number will rise sharply to 170m in the next 13 years, when about 70m Indians – slightly more than the population of France – will be over 70 years old.
Most of these retirees come from India’s middle-class or more affluent groups, where better long-term nutrition and healthcare has extended lifespans far beyond the current national average of 66 years.
Overall, India remains a young country. The elderly account for just 9 per cent of the population with their ranks expected to rise to about 14 per cent by 2025. But many urban Indians find it increasingly tough to care for their elders at home, as a result of rising migration, more women entering the workforce and soaring property prices.
In 2007, New Delhi passed a law – derided by critics as “legislative love” – that made it a crime for adult Indians to fail to take care of their ageing parents. Many seniors do complain of neglect to special tribunals. But new care models are also emerging.
Some companies, provides companionship to the elderly living in their own homes – some with, and some without, family.
“Their biggest need is emotional and intellectual companionship,” says of his clients. “They are lonely.”
Traditionally, ideas of specialised senior housing – such as retirement homes or assisted living facilities – have evoked horror among elderly Indians, who equate them to abandonment. But increasingly they are also seen as practical solutions to difficult problems.
Property developers see growing demand. According to Jones Lang LaSalle – the real estate consultancy, India has about 30 privately run, non-charitable senior living projects, and another 30 in the pipeline.
Many are in India’s more affluent south, which has a higher percentage of old people, as a result of better healthcare and better family planning, though development of such models – and provision of appropriate services – are still in the nascent stages.
India’s urban property prices mean many senior living facilities are built far from cities, which Mr Cherian says condemn the elderly residents to “isolated living”.
HelpAge believes India’s government should provide discount price urban land for senior housing in cities, as well as starting universal pensions, and better health insurance, as it prepares to meet the growing challenge of caring for its elderly population. It is hoping such measures will be included in a new policy on ageing due to be unveiled soon.
“We need to put in certain systems for this demographic shift that will take place, otherwise it’s going to be quite disastrous,”
“We need to start right now.”