Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The elderly as a resource, not a burden

They can provide cohesion with tradition and bring together conflicting movements for 'special causes'

India’s progress in improving the lives of its citizens can be seen in a single statistic, namely, the increase in life expectancy at birth. In 1950-55, life expectancy at birth in India was 36.6 years, whereas the average in the world was 46.8 years. By 2010-15, life expectancy in India had almost caught up with the global average: 67.5 years in India, compared with 70.5 years globally. (Source, UNDESA Population Division). The improvement in life expectancy is a result of reduction in poverty and improvement in healthcare and general social conditions. Of course, India has a long way to catch up with the best: life expectancy in some countries is reaching 80 years.

Increase in life expectancy all over the world, which is a desirable outcome of economic and social progress, is creating new challenges. The problem of ageing populations has become a matter of great concern in rich countries, and now in China too. Provisions for pensions and healthcare for the elderly are straining budgets, while there are increasing demands for more employment opportunities for younger people. What should be a government’s priorities?

In 1980, children (aged 0-14 years) were 39.2% of India’s population and the elderly (over 60 years) were 5.9%. By 2030, children will be 23.9% and the elderly will increase to 12.5%, i.e. 190 million people.

Further, India will have 330 million elderly people (19.4% of the population) by 2050. While India has a lot to do to catch up economically, challenges of an ageing population are already besetting India even while it is yet to adequately address other development challenges, especially adequate care of its women and children. How will the needs of increasing numbers of elderly persons be provided for when the demands of India’s youthful population are not yet met, and when there is insufficient capacity, financial and organizational, to meet them?

The solution is to see the elderly as a blessing, not a burden. The elderly are becoming the fastest growing, but underutilized resource available to humanity. Rather than putting them aside, physically (and mentally), to be cared for separately, they should be integrated into the lives of communities where they can make a substantial contribution to improving social conditions. The benefits of turning the ‘problem’ of the elderly into a ‘solution’ for other social problems is being demonstrated in several countries.

In Vietnam, Old People’s Associations (OPAs) are improving the lives of the elderly in many parts of the country. In a country of 90 million people, as many as 8.5 million are members of OPAs in their village and town communities. The associations are democratically run by the elderly in the communities. They set their own agendas, choose what community causes to apply themselves to, which elderly persons need special assistance and assign responsibilities among themselves. They represent the needs of the community and the elderly to government agencies, who also see them as a vital support for the government’s outreach programmes into communities.

Women constitute the majority in OPAs since they live longer than men. Youth volunteers support the OPAs, providing energy and expertise that the elders may not have. A great benefit of these ‘inter-generational self-help groups’ (as the OPAs are called) is the social capital they accumulate and the cohesion they enable within communities.

The power within socially and economically excluded sections of populations to lift themselves and the communities around them, rather being supplicants of charity and burdens on economies, is exemplified by women’s self-help groups around the world. By organizing to help each other, women in self-help groups are improving the quality of lives of people in many countries. SEWA (the self-employed women’s association), founded by Ela Bhatt, is one of the best examples.

In her recent book, Anubandh, Bhatt advocates the building of ‘hundred-mile communities’ as a way to improve the world for everyone. Anubandh, she explains, derives from the Sanskrit word anu, which means to follow, and bandh, which means a bond, a connection, a relationship. Anubandh, she says, “encourages us to follow the links of mutual interconnectedness towards a sense of wholeness". Anubandh is necessary for environmental and social sustainability. To illustrate the idea of anubandh, she gives the example of the ‘jhadoo’, the broom made of soft grass used in most Indian homes. In the poorest homes, it is never discarded, even when it is worn out. In new sha-pes, its fibres continue to serve useful purposes in the lives of people.

For sustainable and inclusive growth, local communities must be enabled to govern themselves. Elders have experience and wisdom that communities can benefit from. Rather than isolating them and making them dependent on others’ charity for their own survival, the integration of elders can help communities to survive and to thrive. They can be the glue that provides cohesion with tradition, and that brings together conflicting movements for ‘special causes’.

The elderly are the fastest growing, underutilized resource that humanity has to address many other problems. Sadly, in transaction-driven market economies, where activities must have a monetary value to be ‘valuable’, the contributions of the elderly to society are not valued. Re-integration of the elderly into communities may save humanity from mindlessly changing into a technology-driven ‘Industry 4.0’ which futurists are projecting: an economy of robots producing things for each other. Investing a little to engage the elderly in communities can improve the health and well-being of the elderly. It can also improve the health and well-being of communities.

Arun Maira is chairman of HelpAge International.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

Close