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Advertisers and marketers are rediscovering the ‘purchasing power’ of the senior citizens. A number of advertisements focusing on the senior citizens have proliferated on television. All of them show healthy, energetic, carefree, happy senior citizens. The punch lines are the usual – invest in this scheme / mutual fund and remain carefree, plan your retirement (this one directed at the young so that they remain carefree when old), take care of your health with this tonic, be in a position where your hand stretches out to GIVE rather than RECEIVE….  The bottom line in the ads is a dignified way of life for the aged. Society finally seems to be waking up to the needs and aspirations of this section of the population.

In most homes in the middle and upper income groups, the process of ageing brings different dimensions to life. One is loved, respected and cared for. Ones opinion is valued and life has a meaning and dignity. This is the rosy side…

In the drought affected regions of Maharashtra we have seen another side to the story.. a darker side…

A 71 year old grandmother is taking care of a 11 month old child. The child’s parents have migrated in search of work. They were forced to leave the little girl who would not have been able to take the strain of migration and the environment of a sugar factory. The old woman is presently working on a road construction that gets her Rs.25 per day. She manages this work and the home…  The child is unwell, she has fever. So does the grandmother. Going to the doctor is out of question. The PHC is 5 km away and there is no guarantee that the doctor will be there. Also if she spends a day in going to the doctor, she will lose her wages and will have to starve. What will happen to them? “God will take care and whatever happens will be as per His will” says the old lady fatalistically.

An aged couple in a village near Nanded earn their living by begging. Their children have migrated and have not taken them along. ‘Not their fault’, says the old man. ‘They are barely able to manage looking after their children in the wages they earn’…

These are not one-off stories. This is the reality in almost every poor home in rural Maharashtra. The aged are at the receiving end. They are plagued by poverty, ill-health, lack of social security, malnutrition, isolation and lack of self-esteem.  The issue is not that of apathy on part of their children – the children themselves (in most cases) are poor and when faced with the Hobson’s choice of caring for their children or parents, they tend to favour looking after the children.

Incidentally, in the rural areas we find more widows as compared to widowers. While exact numbers are not available (we have not tried to gather these anyway) it is interesting… Is this situation because women tend to live longer than men or is it because widows don’t get / want to get remarried (as compared to widowers who do)…. It may be an interesting subject for research.

We have little social security measures for the aged. The Niradhar Yojanas, the Awas yojanas, the Antyodaya schemes are all nice on paper. They never end up reaching the really poor aged. Even if they do, their reach is marginal. With graying of the population it is estimated that 111 million aged will inhabit the country by 2012 (up from around 56 million in 1992). What will be the fate of the poorest of poor amongst these? How many of them can we reach? Can we create a situation where they can lead a life of dignity? Shouldn’t we do it now before it is too late? Do we want to be known as a society that does not care for its aged?