By Nageshwar Patnaik in Bhubaneswar, March 21, 2021: India’s demographic dividend has grabbed international attention due to the rapidly growing senior population in the country. The United Nationas Population Fund (UNFPA) in its recent India Ageing Report projected that the elderly population in the country would grow close to 16 crore by 2025.

It does not come as surprise as the world population structure is changing and India is no exception, where the birth rate is declining and life expectancy is increasing. By 2050, the world’s population aged 60 years and older is estimated to be 22% of the total population, up from 12% in 2015. In absolute terms, this is an expected increase from 90 crore to 200 crore over the age of 60.

With life expectancy rising steadily living to 100 years might no longer be a pipe dream down the road. But longevity comes with its own issues, such as the need for more retirement savings, and rising medical costs. As a person grows old, they face special physical and mental health challenges that need to be recognized.

In this country, everyone alive today is part of an unprecedented moment in human history: the first time there are more people on earth aged over 65 years than less than five. India at present has nearly 10 crore elderly people, constituting nearly 8.6% of the total population. In the next couple of decades, their population is expected to increase manifold. What is alarming is that a whopping 1.5 crore elderly Indians live alone and 75% of them are women. In just 20 years, India is going to double the share of its older population projected to be 19% by 2050 according to Population Reference Bureau 2012.

India is ageing with rapid speed at a lower per capita income, with higher income inequalities and greater disabilities in older adults and poor overall human well-being compared to its counterparts like China. Considering such phenomena, demographers are pointing to questions like whether “India is getting older before getting rich.”

Given that overall formal employment in India is less than 3% of total employment, a huge rural–urban divide in the economy, increasing rural to urban distress, and pull migration, the left behind older people in rural areas are bound to rise in the future. India also has one of the poorest social security mechanisms in the world. Since health and several other social indicators are in the concurrent list, the divergent social security policies across the states need greater attention.

According to World Health Organization (WHO), the most common mental and neurological disorders among the 60 plus age group are dementia and depression that affect approximately 5% and 7% of the world’s older population, respectively. Similarly, the prevalence of anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and self-harm among older people is 3.8%, 1% and around a quarter of deaths respectively. There was close to eight lakh suicide deaths worldwide in 2016. It was found that elderly women and young adults have much higher suicide rates in middle and low- income counties.

The problems of ageing are real. There is the inevitable decline of the body and mind, and the problems of living longer with this decline: who will care for us, and where, and how we will pay for it? “Old age is particularly difficult to assume because we have always regarded it as something alien, a foreign species,” famed author Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Coming of Age, when she was 62.

It is going to be more than three decades since the United Nations General Assembly designated October 1 the International Day for Older Persons (IDOP) on December 14, 1990. Yet, we remain quite comfortably numb towards the special mental, physical and nutritional requirements of our senior citizens at large.

The Modi government has come out with a Draft National Policy for Senior Citizens last year which is a step in the right direction. The draft policy clearly reflects its understanding of the evolving needs of seniors and promises to revamp and standardize the existing policy framework to ensure better efficiency and functional relevance.

Usually, states with a higher proportion of the elderly population need more concern. But, there are no such focused policies for such states. There is an urgent need for serious attention in providing old-age security and convergence in policies to reduce widening divergence across the regions. The elderly people require continued focus on participation, self-fulfillment, independence, care and dignified existence.

They must be made part of social and economic development, well integrated into society as recommended by the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing adopted by all the UN member states in 2002 at the World Assembly on Ageing.

It is important to ensure that citizens grow old with dignity and remain productive, active during later years too with full rights. This equality does not change with age but still older people are denied their rights since they are considered to be inherently less valuable to society. The New Policy should ensure elimination of barriers to their participation in society, reducing their dependency on others and retaining their autonomy.

Furthermore, there is poor correlation between the net state per capita income and old-age pensions, which implies that there is a huge diversity in elderly social security policies across the Indian states.

Protecting the elderly needs to go beyond ensuring their safety and health. They must be enabled to live with dignity, something that is yet to become a reality both at the cultural and policy level.

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