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Stray Thoughts On Gerontology

by VT Joshi

Teach Your Wife How To Be A Widow!

This startling advice was given to me some 40 years ago by a highly respected elderly acquaintance of mine who had then crossed his 60th birthday. The occasion was a chance meeting at a bank counter in Bombay. He asked me if I had a joint account. Having just stepped into my career I had not the ghost of an idea of all that he was asking me. I told him I had a single-name account in my name. He admonished me affectionately, and asked me to have a joint account with my wife. I readily agreed and appreciated his suggestion. He elaborated it, saying every single important document should be within the knowledge of the wife. Teach and train her to understand the intricacies of banking, insurance, gratuity, pension and all other related matters, he beseeched.

For a long time I reflected upon his sage advice as we parted after I thanked him profusely. One might wonder what has this bizarre, even macabre, episode to do with gerontology. I was rudely reminded of it while reading an equally bizarre but candid report on gerontology. Its relevance bursts upon the mind's eye if one considers the sad plight of aged widows in our tradition-bound country. Hence wisdom lies in explaining to ones wife "how to be a widow", as the elderly gentleman argued, although the very thought must obviously cause a disturbing feeling and some, if not acute, discomfort.

From the scientific studies made so far, it is found that women are physiologically better equipped and therefore live longer than men. This is evident from the fact that among the centenarians in the world 71 per cent are women. Therefore as the population of the aged persons (above 75) grows there will be a preponderance of females among them. In western countries, there are only 65 men over 100 women among the elderly persons.

In India also the situation will in the long veer to more or less the same. This will result in a sex imbalance and the inevitable consequence of it will be that we will have an increasing number of widows. India already has the dubious distinction of largest number of widows in the world, and widowhood in India is a curse, very much so in the vast rural areas, where they virtually lead a life of social outcastes, as pointed out by Mr. B. B. S. Chauhan, a retired police officer who has specialized in the study of gerontology.

Statistics apart, the old age problem, both among the male and female population, is a burning issue not only in India but also in most other countries. It is even more acute in the western countries where the family ties have completely broken down unlike in India where they are gradually breaking up, not yet fully though.

Drug-Driven Longevity

Known as the "Greying Phenomenon", gradual ageing and eventual demise of all living beings is the law of nature. It is regarded as inviolable in spite of the fantastic advances in medical sciences in the past few decades in the field of the so-called "genes technology" that has led to near successful attempts at "cloning" of even the humans. Even so what one witnesses today is drug-driven longevity.

According to the United Nations' statistics, the population explosion became more pronounced since the middle of the 20th century, because of improvement in healthcare and consequent decline in mortality rate. Despite the population control measures this trend of growth will take 2 more centuries to arrest, say demographers, as pointed out by Mr. Chauhan.

While growing population and limited resources are a matter of global concern, there is yet another problem emerging out of it. The age-wise segments within the growing population are increasing in different proportions, the fastest growing segment being the 60-plus bracket. As a result the percentage of population of the elderly is likely to grow steadily. According to United Nation's estimates there are 427 million aged persons in the world today, constituting about 8.8 per cent of the total. However, by the year 2025, the population of the aged is likely to reach 1171 millions, which will constitute a staggering 21.9 per cent of the total population! The greying phenomenon is not affecting the world uniformly and varies from country to country. The developed nations of the world are comparatively in an advanced stage of this process.

In 1991 India had 57 million aged persons, and by the year 2001 the figure touched 76 million, which constituted 7.6 per cent of the total population. Between 1951 and 2001 there has been 189 per cent increase in elderly population and the futuristic trends are more ominous. It is estimated that by the year 2010 the elderly population of our country may be around 124 million, constituting over 10 per cent of the total population.

Still worse, the projection of elderly population are put somewhere around 179 million by 2026, and that will make 14.6 per cent of the total population. In short, we anticipate that India will turn 'grey' in terms of its populations within a quarter of a century. Of course the stages of greying phenomenon will very from state to state, the more likely affected states being Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Punjab. The 'Bimaru' states will bear lesser impact of greying than others, according to Mr. Chauhan's exhaustive study.

Old Age Homes & Institutional Concessions

Apart from the imbalance in the sex composition, a rather alarming aspect is that in the next 25 years the number of those above 75 years of age will swell vastly and will need to be taken care of with all the multiple problems faced by them, physical, mental and psychological. Already there are complaints that the young do not look upon the old and the aged very kindly and are finding it difficult to cope with their problems of old age. There have been stray reports of the old parents knocking the doors of the judiciary after being discarded by their children and dislodged from their homes. The Madhya Pradesh state assembly recently passed a legislative measure to enable grandparents to claim maintenance allowance from their grand children if they have no surviving children to support them in their extreme penury.

The institution of old age homes has not been quite successful in resolving the gerontological problems. There is no doubt a few cases of aged parents voluntarily moving out to live in "Ashrams". The steady disintegration of the traditional family homes has added to the woes of the aged. The reasons are many - largely economic with the onset of the industrial economy and the families scattered in search of jobs. The management of many old age homes leaves much to be desired. Perfunctory commercial interests can never be a substitute for filial love.

Old age is thus a gargantuan social and economic problem. Senior citizens' plight has no doubt moved some segments of society and attracted institutional / governmental concessions like a few medical benefits, some reduction in train and airfares, the special deposit scheme etc. However laudable these might be, there are also instances of what is being given with the right hand is withdrawn with left hand.

Take the case of the so-called nine percent interest rate for senior citizens' deposits initially operative only through the post office and recently extended to some nationalized banks. It has a five-year lock-in period with the provision of quarterly interest payment -- for the aged who are already in the evening of their life. It is subject to income tax and the rate of interest is reduced progressively if the deposits are withdrawn before the expiry of the lock-in period.

Again take the instance of the airfare concession, which in any case can be availed of by a microscopic section of the old and infirm. There is no rhyme or reason for insisting that the entitled citizen must book his ticket one week in advance and must also book his return passage by the same airline. In an emergency the concerned person cannot avail of the concessional fare because he / she cannot anticipate an emergency at least a week in advance. It is virtually negating what is claimed to be offered generously - indeed rather as a dispensable "charity".

With the fast swelling numbers of the old and infirm it may not be inconceivable that the young might be tempted to revolt against such concessions before long in the fiercely competitive world. The problem does not admit of an easy solution.

Euthanasia Or Death As A Boon

"Death is God's most precious boon to mankind", says an elderly, dedicated, devout housewife who lost her 85-year old husband, a senior administrator, after his prolonged illness. Euthanasia might suggest itself as one of the desperate ways out of it - indeed out of this world! It is not a complete answer though.

Some six years ago an American physician, Dr. Kevikoran, who championed the cause of mercy killing, admitted in a Michigan court that he had helped 25 patients to end their life following their terminal illness. The Court was not impressed and sentenced him to 25 years' jail on charge of man slaughter. The judge refused to go into the ethics of euthanasia and held him guilty under the prevailing law of land in that State in the United States.

A few years ago the Nagpur bench of Bombay High Court rejected the plea of a mother to permit her to get her terminally ill daughter's life ended since she was too poor to afford the continuation of the expensive medical treatment. The Court directed the Maharashtra government to provide for the proper treatment of the daughter but declined to consider the mother's request for euthanasia.

Even more instructive is the case of two Kerala teachers. Some time back they moved the High Court seeking judicial indulgence to end their lives voluntarily on the ground that they have already lived a "full, happy and contended life and therefore do not wish to live any longer". Predictably their plea was turned down.

The only lasting remedy seems to be a system of liberal social security on a gigantic scale which a poor country like India can ill afford for a long time to come. In the event one must reluctantly agree with Thomas Hardy who wrote in his characteristic pessimistic vein : "Happiness is an occasional episode in the general drama of pain".


The very concept of 'senior citizens' often tends to be focused only on those gifted with pension benefits while it is not generally realized that there is a vast majority of the aged without such munificence. The issue of pension just does not apply to all, for all are never in plum government jobs, and most have to make do with modest resources compared with the fat pension packets, princely emoluments and perks for a few these days. I tell my friends who envy the present day salary figures that "we were born a bit too early"!

VT Joshi
22 December 2004

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VT JOSHI has more than forty years of experience as a journalist. He retired from THE TIMES OF INDIA in 1989. During 1985-89 he was the Special Correspondent of THE TIMES OF INDIA in Pakistan. His books "PAKISTAN: ZIA TO BENAZIR" and "INDIA AT CROSS ROADS" (co-author GG Puri) were widely reviewed in both India and Pakistan.

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