There’s a sad new development in middle-class India. Traditionally, when parents get old, they have lived with their son’s family. You can see the value of it. Kids grow close to grandparents; old people are cared for and have an active role. It suits everyone, and is a virtuous circle.
Migration has broken into it. So many bright kids have now gone to study and then settled in the States that they have given an added dimension to the empty nest syndrome. What to do with your life – especially if you are woman who has spent her life child-rearing – if not to be the grandparent?
Yesterday I spent time with an impressive bunch of elders in a new phenomenon – a senior citizens’ ‘stay and pay’ care home – unthinkable in conservative India a generation ago. Godhuli (or Twilight) has responded to a new need, and most of the inmates there – from 58 to 90 – were philosophical about the shift. Old style family servants are a thing of the past – robbery and violence is not unknown – and children don’t stay in one place, even in India itself.
But the biggest complaint was aimlessness. ‘We are reasonably modern – we don’t sit in one place and smoke hookah.’
‘Give us something to do,’ pleaded a senior ex-army man, ‘Some small job of around 3 to 4 hours a day. We still have a contribution to make!’
But jobs for the elderly can’t be a priority in a country with such a vast youth population. The same syndrome can be found in the villages, where young people have left to hunt for work in big cities. The National Rural Employment scheme, explained Mathew Cherian, director of HelpAge India, guaranteed only 100 days of work, and even that would go any young ones still there and not to the fit elderly. And who would care for the unfit, with their children gone?
But it is estimated that the youth bulge will decline in proportion, and the currently 81 million over 60s in India will grow. By 2025, it is reckoned there will be 177 million ‘grey’ citizens.