India is greying and the average lifespan increased. According to a 2013 report by the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) India has around 100 million elders at present, and is likely to shoot up to 323 million contributing to about 20 % of the population by 2050. The Government would be well advised to start framing policies for elder care right now. Formerly the elders lived with the family and the youngsters deemed it their responsibility to look after them till the very end.

Living as we do in nuclear families, the children are no longer held responsible for their parents future, who are often left to their own devices for survival. The need of the moment is elder care, and organisations have sprung up to meet the need, but, being new to the situation, efficiency and overall planning leaves much to be desired. Retirement homes are cloaked with “decent” names.. no longer Old People’s Homes which conjures up images of poverty stricken, deserted old people. Some of the communities offer high end homes with every possible convenience you can think of. The NRI children feel less guilty about leaving their parents behind, especially if they are funding the luxuries for them.

Moving into retirement homes is not always the answer. While creature comforts are provided, some don’t favour the perpetual company of other old people who always discuss their aches and pains and other complaints. It is undoubtedly true that younger people entering our lives bring in fresh perspectives, laughter and new experiences, and do rejuvenate older people. As a plus point, there are more geriatric doctors today, and the traditional GP is making a comeback in a different avatar. House visits are possible, so also home nursing facilities. Recovery is faster in a familiar environment rather than be confined to the hospitals where the white coats and antiseptic smells drive fear into most people.

If a longer lifespan is made possible, it is vital that the quality of life should be improved, and just because one is old, it does not mean relegating the ills and discomfort to the backburner, ignoring them as part of the travails of old age. Few of us realise that the old people need to be treasured, and their contributions in various fields remembered. For some of them the knowledge and the experience is still intact, and the younger ones can to a large extent harness the rich fund of knowledge.

True, we live in a turbo charged age, where computerisation has hastened results, with a press of a button. Few have the patience to listen to an older person offer his advice and experience at a pace that only he or she is used to. It is the impatience that upsets the elders, and the lack of time the children spend with their parents.

Depression is very common in old age. It stems from mostly loneliness, a sense of not belonging and scant self worth, that they have outlived their usefulness to society and to the family coupled with a sense of guilt for being alive and causing strain on their children. It is hard when a man who has been breadwinner makes the transition from a full blown productive career to total retirement. Financial stability is threatened further when chronic health problems set in, and the medical bills mount despite insurance claims. Further some of them lose a spouse or dear friends, and they do become conscious of their own mortality. When depression sets in so deeply the seniors let go of their lives, and this situation morphs into various physical ailments which are often fatal.

While these sort of depressive moods can be lightened by persons who visit or family, depression can grow into clinical depression which is serious and has to be treated by trained psychologists and in some severe cases psychiatrists who will decide if appropriate medication can be given. Medication might address the symptom but will not uncover the reasons deep down in the recesses of the mind. Counselling helps to a large extent, and sometimes prolonged treatment is necessary.

Some of the signs to look for would be persistent sadness, diminished interest in everyday activities, fatigue, insomnia, lack of appetite, difficulty in concentrating, lack of memory, excessive crying for the slightest reason, and physical symptoms which don’t respond to treatment. This can to a large extent, be lessened with professional help.

With the number of elders on the increase concerted attempts should be made to help them out. In India we have never thought of old age or disability as something to be addressed. Shopping means climbing stairs, and if there is no lift very few shops have side rails to hold on to. Buses are difficult to mount, pavements are suicidal for older people to walk on them. Houses are not older people friendly with split levels and lack of grab rails in places like bathrooms. Wheel chairs are a must in public places, and it is gratifying today to see wheelchairs in every mall.

Some families are so protective of their aged parents that they just clamp down on their independence. They cannot visit friends or relatives because “they might feel tired” they are not allowed to pursue their interests, since these interests might call for transport, or certain kind of material to be purchased and so on. An active woman even in her eighties can be allowed to do what she likes doing in the kitchen provided someone keeps a vigilant eye. Don’t strip them of the simple pleasures of life. Hold hands, keep smiling with the old and the infirm and it is a rewarding experience!

The writer is Founder Chairperson of UDHAVI…care for the elderly. She may be contacted at