India's Elders Take Future Into Their Own Hands

India's Elders Take Future Into Their Own Hands

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When Hiren Mehta started managing a day care program for seniors in Mumbai, he had certain ideas about what older Indians wanted. “We used to have spiritual discourses and old movies here originally,” he said in his office off a bustling side street in South Mumbai next door to a temple. “Then they said we don’t want old movies. We want sexy ones like the (ones) young people watch.” Mehta spiced up the movie selection and also added salsa classes. “It’s not my grandmother’s India anymore.”

Harmony Foundation which runs the day care center does not even call the seniors seniors. It calls them Silvers. “Old age does not mean you have to just go to the hospital or the temple,” said Mehta. “We want to celebrate age.”

That’s taking some adjusting all round. Eighty million Indians are already over 60. But they are just starting to understand the power of those numbers. “We are not an organized sector,” complained M.R. Parasuram in his air-conditioned office in Bangalore. “We must show how much of a vote we command.” Parasuram, 79, a retired industrialist, comes to his home office everyday at 10 a.m. in crisply ironed shirt and tie. “I am still following the British style,” he said with a smile.

These days, Parasuram is not running his business any more. Instead he runs the Federation of Senior Citizen Forums, a nodal agency for some 130-odd organizations scattered around the state working with senior citizens. “I have done donkey’s work for 50 years. My children are settled. Now I have told them don’t come for any money to me,” said Parasuram. “Now I earn the money. And I spend the money.”

All of this is new territory for India. Though the welfare of older citizens is written into the Indian constitution, that’s mostly on paper. For the lucky, old age was about grandchildren and religious hymns. For the unlucky, it meant being warehoused in one of the government’s dreary homes for the aged or even cast out on the streets. But now as more and more of the middle class turns gray, a growing number of India’s seniors are starting to take their future into their own hands.

It has meant more luxury retirement homes like the Dignity Lifestyle Township a couple of hours outside Mumbai. Dignity tries to market itself as “a hassle-free retirement township, not an old-age home.” Spread over rolling green hills, with picturesque cottages with flowers painted on the nameplates, it’s for the well-heeled retiree. Cottages can cost up to Rs.13 lakh rupees (about $26,000) with monthly fees of Rs.10,000 to12,000 ($250-300).

“We make sure they are pampered,” said Murali Dhar, the resident psychiatrist. That means movie nights, ayurvedic massages and a Jacuzzi. A beautician comes once a month.

Dhar said he has seen a clear difference between those who came to the township out of compulsion, and those who came on their own. “Maybe, 30 percent came here because they have no other place,” he said. “Those 30 percent certainly miss their children more. They are depressed more.”

Dignity’s residents come from the upper strata of Indian society. And when they don’t get the service they are used to, they are not shy about demanding it. “The expectations are high,” said Dhar. “The women who move here are tired of housework and cooking. They want to be free.”

The private sector is starting to take notice of the demands of India’s seniors. Harmony’s Hiren Mehta said he just gave a talk at an architecture conference about how architects can cater to the needs of senior citizens.

“Change started in the bathrooms. Now it’s coming out to the bedrooms and staircases,” said Mehta.

Indian bathrooms are notorious for being wet and slippery. Now some houses are being designed with skid-free tiles and grab rails. “Five to seven years ago hardly anybody would make gadgets that were silver friendly,” said Mehta. “Now there are companies manufacturing everything from different types of walking sticks, to wheel chairs, even utensils. It’s a growing market.” Harmony is in fact, the brainchild of Tina Ambani, a former movie star now married to one of India’s biggest industrialists, Anil Ambani.

These new facilities and amenities are starting to draw a trickle of Indian American retirees to India. Betty Kamath, 80, became a U.S. citizen after she moved to California when her husband died. All her children were settled in the U.S. But when her rheumatoid arthritis started getting worse she decided she had had enough. It was getting difficult to navigate the stairs in her daughter’s home in the Bay Area. She felt more and more dependent. And she knew she didn’t want to move to a nursing home in the United States. “I saw the way the girls treated the older people. They are quite rude, they grumble if you call too much,” she said. She decided to move back to Bangalore instead, to Cleta’s, a home for seniors run by nuns. A big factor in that decision – she could afford a 24–hour attendant there.

Many retiree-returnees do worry about health care facilities in India. Most old age homes, for example, cannot take care of Alzheimer’s patients. But the returning seniors are able to take advantage of the rising power of the grey (or silver) economy. One clear example is the mushrooming of cataract surgery hospitals. Dr. Irudaya Rajan, a demographer in Kerala, said that when he was looking for a cataract surgeon for his mother 25 years ago, there were few facilities. Now they’re everywhere. Likewise, knee replacement ads are cropping up all over the cities.

But there are limits said Dr. Rajan. He still doesn’t see much interest in hearing correction surgeries, though that’s much needed. “One woman told me I want my mother-in-law’s eyes to be clear,” he remembered. “So she can look after the baby. She can lock the house.” But the woman has no interest in fixing her mother-in-law's hearing.  She told Dr. Rajan, "Thank god, my mother-in-law is not hearing. I can say anything to her."

Reporting for this project was funded by a fellowship from the South Asian Journalists Association.