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Senior citizens: Our moral duty to them

An elderly Indian man at the retirement home. Illustration of mental health conditions among senior citizens. Image credit: rawpixel / 123rf. Concept of elder abuse, neglect, and loneliness. Elder mental health concept. Senior citizens concept.
Image credit: rawpixel / 123rf

It is no secret that India is home to an ageing population. This World Senior Citizens Day, it is worth taking a breath to appraise the health of our seniors and to consider how the pandemic has affected them.

As of 2019, older persons – those aged sixty or over – number at 139 million in India, translating to more than ten percent of the total population. By 2050, this proportion is set to almost double to 19.5 percent with 319 million senior citizens – approximately one in every five Indians. 

The health of our seniors has been a core element of how we talk about the pandemic, as senior citizens are known to be acutely vulnerable to serious complications and mortality should they contract COVID-19. The effects are not limited solely to the physical ramifications of the virus itself, but also the mental health effects as lockdown measures have forced many to sequester themselves and spend considerable periods of time in isolation. 

As previously noted by Health Issues India, “elderly mental health has long been a concern in India…As a consequence of the pandemic and consequent draconian measures, social isolation has become the norm for most of us, if not all of us to some degree. For seniors, the consequences of being confined to their home may be even more severe – especially in the case of those who live alone. This is compounded by worrisome trends of elder abuse, which can occur in a range of forms.” 

India’s ageing population and growing cohort of senior citizens among the citizenry is a good thing. We are living longer and health indicators have improved. Nonetheless, we must also grapple with the fact that a larger elderly population means higher rates of various diseases which are more common when one is of an advanced age. An estimated 75 million senior citizens in India are affected by chronic diseases. 

“About 45 million have cardiovascular disease and hypertension and about twenty million suffer from diabetes, and 24 percent of the elderly has difficulty in performing daily functions such as walking, eating, toilet etc; according to this survey,” said KS James, director of the International Institute of Population Sciences (IIPS) in Mumbai, in comments made to The Hindustan Times in January this year. “Even if we assume ninety percent of these people are taken care of at home, there is still ten percent that would require professional help. 

Life expectancy. Copyright: paulprescott72 / 123RF Stock Photo. Age concept.
Life expectancy in India is rising, with the country home to an expanding number of senior citizens. Image credit: paulprescott72 / 123RF Stock Photo

As Samvedna Senior Care points out in a release shared with Health Issues India, “many elderly will be living alone or independently and will be in need of various services and community platforms to help them maintain a quality of life and have access to good care. There will be an increased burden of diseases with chronic ailments, requiring long term care and a supportive environment. The senior care industry is still in early stages of [evolution]. While there is a plethora of services which are being offered by multiple players, the reach and acceptance is still very low and comes at a cost.” 

Furthermore, there is the matter of poverty. As Age in Asia states, “India is rated 130th out of 189 countries on the latest United Nations Human Development Index Ranking in 2018. Only a quarter of people (24.1 percent) older than the statutory pensionable age in India receive an old-age pension (contributory, noncontributory or both). Over time, there will be fewer and fewer working-age people to provide economic support during old age with the old-age dependency ratio expected to double in the next few decades.” 

We are now witnessing the Decade of Healthy Ageing. As the United Nations explains, “populations around the world are ageing at a faster pace than in the past and this demographic transition will have an impact on almost all aspects of society. Already, there are more than one billion people aged sixty years or older, with most living in low- and middle-income countries. Many do not have access to even the basic resources necessary for a life of meaning and of dignity. 

“Many others confront multiple barriers that prevent their full participation in society. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the seriousness of existing gaps in policies, systems and services. A decade of concerted global action on healthy ageing is urgently needed to ensure that older people can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment.” 

The UN recommends that we combat ageism, produce age-friendly environments, and shore up standards when it comes to long-term care and provide integrated care. The plan of action can be accessed here.

Taking care of our elders is vital. With the number of India’s elderly growing, we must be prepared to accommodate their needs, provide for their care, and guarantee their dignity. This Senior Citizens Day, as we continue to grapple with a pandemic that affects them disproportionately in terms of adverse effects, we ought to reaffirm that commitment – and sustain it all-year round. 

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