Opinion

Young at 60, active at 80

Retiring the worn-out concept of workplace retirement is an appropriate way for India to begin a national discourse on happy and healthy ageing

Sugandhi Baliga
heads the geriatric programme at the Tata Trusts

In this age of alternative thinking, there is one vital battle that we all must fight — against the idea of retirement. As a society, Indians — typically urban, male, middle class and in the service sector — believe in the holy grail of retired life starting at 60. There is an overwhelming desire to set aside the office briefcase, let the railway pass expire, bid goodbye to colleagues and settle down to a life of ease. And deadening boredom. .

That attitude has to go. It's a stereotype and we need a social movement to change it, much like the movement against patriarchy. Why? There are several reasons, and they are tied up with economic and personal health.

Let's crunch some numbers. It's true that India is a young nation, with about 372 million children below the age of 14 and only 100 million above 60. But as the decades pass swiftly, that ratio is going to reverse. Several demographic studies for India have projected that the number of senior citizens in the country will cross 300 million by 2050. That's close to the population of the United States.

Better healthcare and food security have led to increased longevity. India had only 0.4% of citizens over the age of 80 in 1950. This number has now jumped to 0.9% (in a much larger population base) and will reach 2.6% of an estimated 1.7 billion people over the next three decades. That means about 45 million 80-plus geriatrics to be cared for. Additionally, over 70% of all seniors will be in rural areas, putting that much more pressure on the government and its social services.

India cannot afford to have such a large and unproductive citizen base. China's ageing population and economic slowdown should be a warning bell for us, a signal to urgently start changing our civic and social infrastructure to deal with the needs of the elderly. Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and Australia are among several nations that are working to raise their pension age towards 70. It is well past time India walks the same path.

Old but not out

As individuals, too, we cannot afford to retire as early as 60. To sit idle and not be actively engaged is an invitation to illness. The number of noncommunicable diseases linked to sedentary lifestyles are increasing by the day. On the other hand, we see around us a number of shining examples of active senior citizens who continue to enjoy a full life.

Indeed, seniors can be significant contributors to the economy rather than a liability to be accounted for in the national budget. Also, there are untapped business opportunities in unitising the talent pool and abilities of senior citizens.

It is time to start a national discourse on what makes for happy and healthy ageing. We need to build a social fabric where 60 is not an expiry date for productivity. Attitudes need to be altered; no more thinking of rest, retirement or relaxation. Instead, we need to find passions, pursuits or a purpose. Elders can and should think about volunteering, community engagements, re-skilling, second job opportunities, etc. Through such continuous engagement, we can keep mind and body alert.

Another point that needs debate is the role of the government in dealing with the elderly. World over, governments are creating programmes and institutions for seniors. But in South Asian cultures, and India in particular, the traditional belief is that the family is responsible for its aged. That needs to change as well.

Start with healthcare

The government has to recognise that our growing demographic of silvers needs attention. Healthcare is a good place to start. India has introduced the National Programme for Health Care for the Elderly (NPHCE) but the allocation for it in the 2017-18 union budget was just 105 crore, later revised downward to 80 crore. That is woefully inadequate for a national scheme.

The other issue is that budgetary funds for elderly care are distributed across myriad schemes promoted by more than a dozen union ministries. Although the government has introduced a number of benefits for seniors, their impact is lost because there is no mission to address the issue holistically. We need a single ministry and a strategic plan, based on data, to drive new ideas and innovative programmes enabled by technology.

A significant part of the Tata Trusts' elder care programme involves advocacy and engagement with the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. The Trusts' programme is aptly named Elder Spring. The interventions here are based on making ageing healthier and less stressful. Towards that end, we have started three verticals: strengthening healthcare systems; enabling systems for happy ageing; and a toll-free response system (14567 in Hyderabad) for seniors.

In the rural sector — specifically in Chandrapur in Maharashtra, Medak in Telangana and Yadgir in Karnataka — we are helping the state put into operation a comprehensive health initiative by facilitating NPHCE. Under this programme, primary health centres focus on geriatric clinics for one day in the week. About 30,000 people have received health cards and services through the project.

In Bhubaneswar, Odisha, we have started an activity centre where seniors engage in yoga, music, dance, art and more. The centre has received a tremendous response and we are in conversation with the government to expand the initiative. The vision is that every ward in the city should have one such physical space where seniors can participate and remain active. In this model, we encourage user fees to involve the community in the centre's running. We also encourage corporate entities to participate in setting up such centres in partnership with the government.

The Trusts are tweaking this urban model for rural regions. The concept of a rural recreation space for elders is alien to India because the rural elderly have no retirement; typically, they continue working until they are too frail or ill. We are working with village councils to start activity centres that will be run by government-appointed workers or volunteers (we now have 42 such centres in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Telangana). The elderly come for two-three hours a day and participate in different group activities. The vision is that every village should have one such space, funded by the local council.

The third intervention is a toll-free helpline in Hyderabad that we call a connect centre. Volunteers listen, converse and engage with seniors and help them manage issues such as loneliness, pensions and legal cases. About 14,000 calls have been received in just seven months. We have served 3,500 people and assisted in rehabilitating more than 100 homeless cases.

We offer information mapped to Hyderabad city (such as contact details for old-age homes), emotional or counselling support (for seniors who face harassment), backing in cases where homeless seniors are rescued from the street, and legal advice in property and abuse cases. This platform will aggregate all the information related to various service providers in the elderly care sector. The intention is to grow towards a national platform that can serve the seniors of this country, a public-private partnership with central and state governments on board and support from companies.

All of the Tata Trusts' interventions in elder care are meant to help build a senior-friendly environment and find innovative solutions to care delivery and engagements. The belief is that an active mind and body can keep health issues at bay and reduce the burden of care for families and society.

The need of the hour in India is for stakeholders to collaborate and work together to support our young demographic in participating in the development and growth of the economy, even as it ages over the next three decades. We need to encourage the new philosophy of 're-living' instead of 'retirement' at 60. That is the essence of the Tata Trusts' Elder Spring programme.