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'Let's ensure our elders can live a life of dignity'

Last updated on: October 07, 2012 17:53 IST

Elders surveyed have spoken of suffering disrespect, neglect, verbal abuse, physical abuse, and emotional abuse. The survey finds that the most abused are those above 80. 

Let me, at the outset, confess my bias. I turn 77 a few months from now. Our honourable prime minister has just celebrated his 80th birthday. Ms Lata Mangeshkar celebrated her 83rd birthday a few days back. Justice V R Krishna Iyer is going strong at the age of 97 -- intellectually vibrant and deeply concerned about the welfare and progress of our nation. Many more illustrious persons can be added to this list, but I stop here.

There is, in this audience and all around us, a large number of elders who are making extremely valuable contributions to our country and our society. I salute them and am proud to be one of them, an 'elder' leading a productive and fruitful life. And, I am confident that each one of these elders has much more to do and give before they call it a day.

Today, with the advancement of medical science and technology, age is by no means a disabling factor. If you are healthy, age is just a number. It is also possible to remain young in mind and spirit, irrespective of how many moons you have seen. As summed up by the famous English writer, W Somerset Maugham, "Old age has its pleasures, which, though different, are not less than the pleasures of youth".

India is a young nation and we celebrate the fact that more than 50 per cent of our population is under the age of 25. We are hoping that the demographic dividend that a young population brings will assure our country's economic future. However, we must remember that there is a very significant population of elders in our country, whose needs cannot be overlooked. According to a forthcoming UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) report, 20 per cent of our population is going to comprise of elders by 2050...

I have to confess my deep alarm and dismay in this context over the findings of the 20 city survey conducted by HelpAge, which reveals that one out of three elders have faced abuse. It is even more shocking to learn that those surveyed describe their sons and daughters-in-law as the primary abusers. Many report such abuse as having continued for more than five years and most do not complain to any one in order to uphold family honour. Elders surveyed have spoken of suffering disrespect, neglect, verbal abuse, physical abuse, and emotional abuse. Worst of all, the survey finds that the most abused are those above 80. 

I hope these findings will serve as a wake-up call and goad each one of us into immediate action. We must do everything possible to ensure that our elders can live a life of dignity, enjoying the best of medical attention, economic security as well as emotional stability. Our culture, history, traditions, religion and philosophy all enjoin us to respect our elders and to fill their lives with abundant love and affection. India is what it is today because of the contributions made by our elders in their youth. If those hands steadied you when you learned to walk, then you need to support them when they need help and hope there will be others who will do the same for you when you grow old.

The majority of older persons in our country are women and among the oldest, 65 per cent are women. Sadly, 58 per cent of the older women are widows. This gender dimension to ageing is something we should recognise and address with appropriate measures. I was very pleased to see earlier the elderly "Maasis" from Kolkata who are being taken care by HelpAge India.

Across India, the 'joint family' is withering away and with it, the informal support structures that elders used to enjoy. This has serious implications for the economic, health, emotional and physical security of the elderly segment of our population. These challenges should be seen in the context of industrialisation and modernisation, which has affected the family size, structure and its guiding philosophy. We certainly cannot set the clock back, but we must evolve solutions that strike a balance between conflicting demands of elderly and younger members of the family. 

The real challenges that lie in the field of health security are accessibility and affordability of medical health facilities. Elderly require special geriatric care that can be available only in the tertiary hospitals and their medical expenses increases with age whereas their income decreases or remains static despite increase in inflation. Private hospitals are reluctant to provide concessions to the elderly and insurance companies unwilling to insure the elderly. In the economic field, the full play of market forces in the financial markets has resulted in lowering of interest rates. Interest is the mainstay of the income of many elderly who do not get any regular pension but invest their resources in such deposit schemes that yield secure returns.

The government of India in 1999, which was the International Year of Older Persons, adopted a National Policy on Older Persons. This is a comprehensive document that identifies principal areas of intervention and action strategies. This policy needs to be implemented in full earnest by the government. NGOs like HelpAge India and older persons' organisations must provide necessary support to the government in this regard. 

There is an urgent need to mainstream issues concerning the aged and ageing in India. The needs and requirements of the elderly should not be overlooked by society. We need to fight ageism that is so deeply ingrained in the societal psyche and reinforced by the media. Elderly should not be considered a spent force and consigned to the history books, but seen as active members of the society contributing to its well-being. Society and government should be sensitised to the fact that old age is just another phase of life with its special needs and characteristics like childhood and youth. Though the losses in this phase of life are more than in any other phase in life, but still all is not lost. Most importantly, the elderly should be encouraged to get out of a 'retirement mentality' and think about old age as a second inning, an opportunity to complete so many unfinished tasks and expand horizons, to look beyond the self and the family and work for community.

Excerpts from an address by President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, at a function organised by HelpAge India on the occasion of International Day Of Older Persons, on October 1 at Vigyan Bhavan, New Delhi

Pranab Mukherjee New Delhi