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India’s demographic time-bomb: the elderly

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.”

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