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The loneliness of the elderly in India

A greying India needs old age homes, elder-friendly devices, affordable healthcare and daycare centres. But more than anything else, it needs us all to bridge the loneliness gap

Seniors were used to a world where they were part of every family decision. Now other people make decisions for them.
Seniors were used to a world where they were part of every family decision. Now other people make decisions for them. (iStock photo.)

Baghban has just turned 20.

That film has been our glycerine standard when it came to depicting ageing in popular culture. In that five-handkerchief weepie, Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini are the senior citizens, growing old and lonely in the new India, not allowed to live together, passed back and forth by their ungrateful children.

It paints the breakdown of the extended family as the arch villain. The joke goes it’s the family film that you cannot watch with the family for fear of being guilt-tripped by the parents.

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Actor Samir Soni, who played the eldest son, told the entertainment portal Bollywood Hungama he has heard that too. After the film released, a woman came up to him in a mall and said: “You are a very bad son! You should be ashamed of yourself.”

Much to my chagrin, it’s also one of my mother’s favourite films. Though Soni said he heard there was a spike in parents taking out insurance for themselves after the film released, I sometimes feel Baghban turned the conversation around ageing into a full-fledged nostalgia trip for the long-lost extended family.

Years ago, I visited an old age home in Kolkata. Every other person there had some heart-rending story to tell. Someone’s son assaulted her after she refused to sign over the deeds of the house to him. Yet another lost her son and felt like a burden on her daughter.

“What to do? The times are bad,” one lady told me. And all the other old ladies nodded in agreement. They had all seen Baghban.

But Sarah Lamb, professor of anthropology at Brandeis University, US, and author of several books about ageing in India, once told me there never really was a golden age for elders in India. “There were always old people being kicked out by their children,” Lamb said. “It’s just that now you blame modernity and globalisation.”

In popular culture, the elderly are either rosy-cheeked grandmothers, cuddly like teddy bears, or white-haired tyrants shackled to regressive old ways. Thus in Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani, Jaya Bachchan played grumpy grandma while Shabana Azmi was cool grandma. Only Dharmendra’s character, confined to a wheelchair, grappling with dementia, attempted to portray an all-too-real physical frailty that is rarely seen in popular cinema.

It’s certainly a step up from Baghban, which ticked off all our emotional blackmail checkboxes—duty, silent suffering, abhimaan (pride), and, finally, forgiveness. While elders are routinely shown craving their children’s love, they are rarely shown relishing their own independence. Bollywood is changing (and Rocky Aur Rani is an example) but at one time Sharmila Tagore said she was crushed when she signed on to play the grandmother in Aamir Khan’s Mann (1999). “It was such a lovely role but from the first day he said ‘moist eyes, moist eyes’ and I just gave up.” Rituparno Ghosh’s 1997 film, Dahan (Crossfire), was very much a film about women’s empowerment and feminist solidarity. The two leading women, Rituparna Sengupta and Indrani Halder, jointly won the National Film Award for Best Actress but the character that really stayed with me was the grandmother. Rabindrasangeet veteran Suchitra Mitra played the no-nonsense Thammi, who lived alone and seemed entirely content doing so. I had never quite seen a character like that on screen and I loved her.

I remember watching the film in the US with my American housemate. He turned to me and said, “When I grow old, I want to be her.” She was alone but not lonely, something most of us cannot comprehend because we are conditioned to think of an older person living alone as someone to be pitied.

India is greying rapidly but characters like Thammi are few and far between in popular culture. A 2023 report from the United Nations Population Fund says that in 2022, senior citizens, meaning those above 60, made up 10.5% of India’s population. By 2050, that will rise to 20.8%. In fact, four years before that, the population size of the elderly will be higher than that of children aged 0-14. The generation in their 40s is already feeling the pinch—sandwiched between ageing parents and not-yet-independent children, being pulled at both ends, emotionally and financially.

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The problems of greying India are very real. It’s not just about old age homes, daycare centres and dementia facilities. It’s about far more basic things—wheelchair access, public transport, walkable roads. My elderly mother complains that the only outings she has these days are visits to the doctor. But when we propose anything else, she gets nervous. The pavements are uneven. She is afraid of losing her balance. Even a ground-floor restaurant can come with a small flight of stairs. There is a fear of unknown spaces. As eminent gerontologist and professor emeritus at the University of Bengaluru, Indira Jaisingh, said in an interview: “In the West, countries developed first and then they grew old. Whereas in India we are growing old and developmental systems are not in place.”

There is no perfect solution anywhere. In the US, many seniors feel like they have been dumped in old age homes and forgotten by their families. In Italy, on the other hand, where intergenerational families are more common, the first wave of covid-19 was especially brutal because the children and grandchildren were bringing the virus home to the elderly grandparents. In India, Jaisingh said, there was an extra layer of denial. “Even in the 1980s, when this problem was pointed out, one of our ministers said that there is no problem of ageing in India because we have the joint family system. This denial mindset continues.”

Sociologist Ashis Nandy told me that many Indians complain their children are becoming too Westernised, that they don’t love their parents the way earlier generations did even if they provide them with all the creature comforts. But, he said, elders also “expect a different, more intense social relationship with the children and grandchildren who are no longer psychologically equipped to provide that”.

My mother sometimes reminisces about growing up in one house with 30 cousins. They would sit in a row and eat together. On summer afternoons, they would all crowd on their grandmother’s bed. “Somehow we all fit,” she says.

Now older people themselves feel they don’t fit even when they don’t live in ungrateful Baghban-ised families. A relative quietly moved into an old age home when her son and daughter-in-law both started working from home during covid. She felt there was literally no room for her any more. More importantly, seniors are used to a world where they were part of every family decision. Now other people take the decisions for them. They may get all their medicines and meals but they worry they don’t matter any more, that their opinions and advice don’t count for as much any more in a far more impatient world. And there is a loneliness in that.

A greying India will need old age homes, hearing aids, elder-friendly smartphones, affordable knee replacements and daycare centres. But more than anything else, it will need us all to bridge the loneliness gap because ageing is hard. Even those with the best resources understand that.

Former US president Jimmy Carter just turned 99. Earlier this year, he entered hospice care. The doctors assumed he just had weeks, perhaps days, left. Seven months later, he made a rare appearance in public, riding a black Chevy suburban SUV, clasping his wife Rosalynn’s hand, frail and shrunken, but still there.

Carter is lucky. His wife of 77 years, Rosalynn, is around, though she has been diagnosed with dementia. He needs a wheelchair to get around and cannot go for a swim any more but the Carters still spend every day together.

His son, Chip, told The Washington Post, “He told me he has been successful at everything in life, but he can’t figure out how to die.”

However there is not an ounce of self-pity visible. Carter remains active, following the 2024 presidential race, calling his melanoma “a new adventure”.

He has his good days and his bad ones but one thing’s for sure. These are not Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter’s Baghban years. Meanwhile, I live in dread that someone will make a Baghban 2.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host. He posts @sandipr.





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