An Idiot's Tale

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An Idiot's Tale

Cacography of a madcap story teller, JAYEETA GHORAI

One minority group whose marginalization is grossly overlooked and rarely spoken about in India is geriatrics.

Old people, in terms of sheer number, are by no calculation a ‘minority’. With medical science having vastly improved than in the days of yore, the best treatments technologically at par with international standards being available now in India (though for largely those that can afford it), longevity is being preserved, as often the only indicator of quality of life.

India Facing Elderly Population Time Bomb.
(The Telegraph, 20 November 2011) 

Population of Elderly to Touch 100 mn Mark.
(The Indian Express, 4 May 2012)

Death rate is still lower than birth rate – but for each of the two demographies on these extreme ends of the age spectrum, life is not as rosy as could be desired.

In India the moment people lose mobile agility they are expected to shunt indoors and quietly wither away. Why, for Pete's sake? They're still there, not dead yet! And by no means senile, most of them. The offset of bodily dysfunction usually happens earlier than the mental one.

A friend pointed out, perhaps irritated by my recent volley of observations and insights inspired by another culture – at least in India, we take care of our elders, they live with us in family homes and we don’t send them to old age residences.

In contrary argument, for one, the trend to shelve our burden is on the rise in urban, capitalist, monetarily ambitious and tradition-shorn contemporary India, or else, a film like Bhagban (2003) wouldn’t be as commercially successful as Amrit (1986). Both talk of selfish offspring and how the parents, at first hurt and heckled, decide to severe ties and live on their own. The audience found resonance because the theme hasn’t much changed in the twenty odd years’ gap. ‘We’ may not be doing it, are still treating our ‘own’ parents with dutiful obedience, but the uncomfortable truth is, we all know someone somewhere who is less than courteous to theirs. Living under the same roof does not necessarily ensure a life of care or dignity for all the seniors.

What of the ones who have no family, were single by circumstance and choice? With no offspring or kin to look after their changing needs, no patient ear or helping hand? For those of us who’ve seen the inside of an Indian old age home, such numbers aren’t small. They’ve had the foresight to transfer themselves to a relatively secure environment as comparable to staying alone in their own residences, so that when senility or immobility strikes, they may have quicker access to succour. Or someone has taken that decision for them, out of kindness or inability to take on the job themselves.

I would not always hold such ‘inability’ against them, living as most of us do in increasingly smaller habitats, with limited means to sustain ourselves. How many of even the most large-hearted of us, can consider taking into our lives and homes a senior member of our extended family other than our ‘own’ parents, make adjustments to our lifestyle, schedules and budgets? In an ambiance where pets, with shorter life spans, are regularly abandoned when they grow old, how many of us can make commitments for God knows how long the old person will live? After all, the employer won’t sanction us an additional allowance for each old person we generously adopt off the street…and age has its maladies and medical expenses that are recurring.

Most of these ‘homes’, too, survive on the brink of non-hygiene and penury. Those permanently debilitated routinely lie neglected on their beds, as they lie dying in their own bedrooms. There is rarely an old-age pension, a handyman to run their errands, a cheerful face to ask after them, which is often the key to their sustenance.

For another, and this is irrespective of where they reside, living beings need dignity and companionship. HDFC Life Insurance had run a commercial of an aged parent who refused the hand of his son alighting at a train platform: Sar Utha Ke Jiyo (live with your head held high) said the tagline. Aircel with Helpage India ran another, shot poignantly in black-and-white, of this old man in a sparse room, playing carrom with himself, limping between the seats on the either side of the board. “Silence is not always golden”, it reminded.

Whether an animal or a person, old or young, everyone has equal need of dignity. A right to it. What if there could be a system that ensures an old person’s entitlement to dignity? Is a meagre 1% addition in bank interest all India can do?

Why do banks not give loans on battery operated single-seater mobile carriers for our senior citizens, instead of spamming potential able-bodied owners with car loans that further jam our ill-planned, narrow roads? Why has no Indian automobile manufacturer delved into production of such vehicles, or add customised wheelchair ramps in cars specifically targeted towards ownership by the disabled (who may have the visual and neural acuity to drive or be driven about)?

Why do pharmaceutical companies not give discounts on their line of geriatric medicines? Why do healthcare product manufacturers not produce and advertise incontinence pads and disposable panties as much as they do sanitary napkins? Are women a larger, more economically viable target audience than seniors – perhaps, the ugly truth is, they are.

Why do transport ministries across states not spend enough thought on commissioning public transport with low steps and/or collapsible door ramps – would these come at a greater cost than the fleet of swank AC JNNURM or Tata Marcopolo buses currently plying Calcutta streets (Volvo Low Floor buses have that, but no disabled access ramp)?

A joint study on Indian geriatrics by UNPFA and Helpage International. Unfortunately not a word on infrastructure planning and designing in its provisions.

Why do road planners not make footpath corners curve down for smoother movement of disability battery cars and wheelchairs? Why does every public and governmental office not mandatorily have a ramp access or a ’push’ button at normal knee-level to manipulate doors which swing open all the way for wheel chairs to pass through? This would be an exemplary stance of a government displaying ‘respect’ and inclusivity in practice, not mere lip service.

A more ‘accessible’ urban planning and designing would not only benefit the elderly, but their caregivers. Those of us who’ve had to push wheel chairs, gurneys or support a slow mover would appreciate what I mean.

The truth is, India, at personal, social, official, policy level is unkind and inconsiderate of its substantial aged population. Whether with a baby stroller, geriatric mobile car, ‘handicap’ vehicle or simply limping about with a walking stick convalescing from an accident or illness, our roads are designed to discourage less-than-normal mobility.

We'll get there someday, every last one of us (if we're lucky…or very un-lucky)! A little more respect in ways that matter, please! A teeny weeny thought to how we design our roads, public transport, building doors, that is all it would take, a little thought! 

There are far useful and improved ways to make Calcutta London, and India a more equalising milieu, than trident lamps and hideously re-painting already vibrant fly overs. Come and see for yourself how it is actually done, for what your tax-payers' funded foreign trips are worth.

Sorry but mere harping on traditions is just not cutting it either.

Indian Journal of Community Medicine takes a specific look at how public healthcare management can improve to better quality of life for Indian geriatrics but is that enough?




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