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India’s seniors are lonely and depressed. How do we address this crisis?

Elderly population. Copyright: paulprescott72 / 123RF Stock PhotoMaya Devi is 85-years-old and living with her daughter in the city of Jammu. But she would not be here for long and soon shift to her younger daughter’s house in Delhi, then soon to her other daughter’s house. This is an arrangement worked among her daughters after her son’s death when her daughter-in-law asked her to leave the house. She has four daughters, daughter-in-law and several grandchildren but still like many other seniors of her age, she is lonely and depended on others.

In urban India, they are left to their rooms like old furniture and in rural India asked to leave the house to live by themselves. In the ghats of Varanasi or Haridwar or the lanes of Mathura you would see them begging for compassion.

It is estimated that by the year 2020, approximately seventy percent of the world’s population aged sixty and above will be living in developing countries. 14.2 percent of them will live in India. Recent polling has shed new light on one of the most difficult issues facing India’s seniors: loneliness and depression.

“Recent polling has shed new light on one of the most difficult issues facing India’s seniors: loneliness and depression.”

Just one tenth of India’s seniors are not concerned about loneliness. 36 percent of those surveyed identified social interaction as their top priority in day-to-day life. This is per Juj Jug Jiyenge (“Live Longer”) – a survey of 1,000 elderly Indians across seven states conducted by IVH Senior Care, an elder care provider headquartered in Noida, Uttar Pradesh.

The survey reveals that just two percent of Indian seniors consider themselves to have a good quality of life. 71 percent of surveyees say their lives could be improved. The data suggests that social isolation is a major driving force behind this epidemic of low mood and marginalisation of one of society’s most vulnerable demographics.

India’s population is getting older. Elderly people will number more than 340 million people by 2050, projections estimate. This will represent an increase from six to thirteen percent of how elderly people comprise India’s population.

“India’s population is getting older”

It is undoubtedly good news that Indians are living longer lives. But the culture is very different from the western society. People lead busy lives, work hard without many holidays to save money for their children and after they retire they feel life their life is over. Only to wait for their death. However, there are public health concerns which are inevitable in any country which is witnessing an increase in the size of its ageing population.

As one ages, their risk of developing noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as cancer and heart disease increases substantially. In particular, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia leaps as one gets older. Advanced age is considered the main risk factor for contracting Alzheimer’s disease. Decreases in immune system  also expose the elderly to infectious conditions such as pneumonia.

Mental illness is a significant issue when it comes to elders’ health concerns. Unfortunately, its significance is seldom recognised.

This is very true at the family level, as the survey points out. 67 percent of the children of India’s elderly living away from home worry about their parents’ physical health as they get older. However, just eighteen percent are concerned in a similar way about their parents’ mental health and social needs.

“Mental illness is a significant issue when it comes to elders’ health concerns. Unfortunately, its significance is seldom recognised.”

Past findings bear out the new findings relative to the mental health of India’s seniors. 21.9 percent of India’s seniors suffer from depression – a figure higher than the global average. Concerns such as loneliness, physical health, and lack of financial security fuel this, data suggests. Just one third of India’s seniors feel financially secure. 65 percent are financially dependent on others.

Despite these alarming statistics, mental health very much manifests as a silent crisis among India’s elderly. Misdiagnosis is common. Stigmatisation of those with mental health issues is abundant – not only among the elderly, but across all stratas of Indian society.

The survey by IVH Senior Care highlights the extent to which inadequate infrastructure compounds the manifold issues faced by India’s elders. This is very much a pan-India issue. The country’s public health system is riddled with shortfalls of mental healthcare infrastructure and personnel. This obstructs efforts to required to administer effective mental healthcare to a population where 13.7 percent of people suffer from a mental health condition.

A more inclusive approach to healthcare must be taken. This is both with regards to those suffering mental health conditions and to India’s seniors. As the population increases both in size and age, providing elder care cannot afford not to be a priority for Indian policymakers. It is vital that mental health is afforded parity of esteem with physical health concerns in this endeavour.

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