Pune: She grew up listening to her grandparents’ stories over dinner, three generations gathered in the house they shared, as in nearly every Indian family she knew.
But, now that Uma Paranjpe is a grandmother, she finds herself living alone in a small apartment, her children abroad, her grandchildren far from her cooking and her stories. And she’s thrilled.
“Grandparents also want their own independence,” said the 62-year-old widow, who lives in a bustling retirement community in Pune. “We want freedom. We would like to travel, to pursue our hobbies.”
A cultural revolution is under way in India, led by an unlikely grey-haired vanguard that is dramatically changing what it means to be old here, and what it means to be a family.
Good ol’ days: Residents of Athashri, a housing complex in Pune for senior citizens. Buy-in prices for such homes could be Rs30-50 lakh.
In a country where family is society’s strongest cultural anchor, the thought of the elderly living alone has long been anathema, but many old people today are embracing the notion. With the economy booming, children are moving away for jobs, leaving elderly parents on their own.
While some lament the breakdown in family as a sign of cultural decline, others—especially the well-off—are happy to devote their old age to themselves instead of their grandchildren.
The new retirement communities are so far available only for the rich. There’s nothing between the high-end faux Florida facilities and bleak government-run homes for those with nowhere else to go.
Roughly, a dozen development companies across the country offer sparkling facilities complete with badminton courts, lap pools and game rooms to the wealthiest sliver of the country’s 80 million people over 60.
“I don’t think my son or my daughter will look after me—and I’m damn happy about it,” said Minoo Shroff, 72, who lives in a housing complex for seniors in Pune, a pleasant city popular with retirees because it’s more temperate than much of the rest of India. “I’m independent, they’re independent.”
Seniors in India traditionally occupy a role somewhere between family pillar and dependent hanger-on, with some 71% of the elderly living with their children or grandchildren, according to the 2001 national census.
Grandparents can be revered keepers of family lore or ghostly presences cooking nearly forgotten recipes. But, from teeming cities to sleepy villages, caring for one’s parents is, to most Indians, a duty as important as caring for one’s children, and home after home across the country is crowded with the same mix of generations.
The arrangement is one borne out of custom and financial necessity—the Indian government provides no Social Security-type benefits and less than 10% of the population receives even a small pension.
Experts say the new prosperity flooding into India is weakening the joint family system, where the next generation lived with the last, because the pace of life is speeding up and getting Westernized.
“The younger generation is very busy. They don’t have time to spend with older people,” said Harvinder Bakshi of HelpAge India, an activist group for the elderly. “The joint family system is disintegrating.”
Newspapers frequently carry lurid stories of children abandoning their parents to the street, and activists have called on the government to open more affordable old-age homes. Bakshi says his group, a major one, gets a half-dozen calls a month about abandoned seniors, which he does not think is an alarming trend.
Even the expensive retirement homes cannot make up for the joy of growing old among family.
“I miss that bonding, that security, that comfort, the love, the shelter. We don’t feel that here,” said Madhukar Gokarn, 73. She and her husband live in an exclusive retirement community called Golden Nest in Pune, but her afternoon walks on the building’s roof are small consolation for what she has lost. “Who wouldn’t want to be with their own children as long as possible?”
Shashank Paranjape, the real-estate developer generally credited with introducing retirement homes to India, opened his first project, Athashri, in 2003 in Pune as a complex explicitly modelled on Western retirement homes. With roughly 1,000 residents in four branches, Athashri is a thriving community that looks as though it were plucked straight from Florida, right down to the early-bird specials—spicy lentils and rice.
Paranjape plans retirement homes in five more Indian cities, but he and other developers face major hurdles.
To most Indians, communities exclusively of old people seem as impractical as neighbourhoods of children would be. Also, the buy-in prices of Rs30-50 lakh, rule out the vast majority of the population, although with the economy growing every year, developers are betting the market will increase.
The communities buzz with card games, book clubs and music lessons—activities all but unthinkable in generations past, when old age was spent helping with grandchildren and household chores.