‘It’s too early to talk about this now!’
These are the sort of responses I received when I had first broached the subject of looking at options for senior living with my closest circle. Perhaps I do overthink, but then, if ‘investing in the future’ is smart, then why is looking at options for senior living, depressing? After all, isn’t being able to make your own choices and lead a dignified life the natural extension of the present-day independent living?
True, I may have started earlier than most, but as it turned out, a growing number of those in their 40s and 50s are doing the same. This denotes a change in a lot of things—most crucially, a shift in parent-child dynamics in the Indian context.
Family is the basic unit of a society, and while the definition of family itself has become more fluid and all encompassing, the core of this building block remains the same: loving and looking out for each other. Parents are the natural caregivers of children and when parents become old and are no longer able to look after themselves, their adult children step in.
But with rapid social changes, urbanisation and modernisation, children often move away from home for higher education and/or jobs to different cities or countries. This leaves ageing couples mostly on their own.
According to the United Nations Population Fund, India’s ageing population (aged 60-plus) will nearly double by 2030, touching 192 million. With increase in longevity—current life expectancy in India is 70.42 years, an increase of 0.33 percent from the previous year—people are living longer, more active lives. Increase in longevity and the breakdown in social fabric, however, is pushing seniors into ‘loneliness and neglect’, says the World Health Organisation.
Loneliness and being alone are not the same thing. You could be living in a full house and still be lonely. Kolkata-based Arunima Das, for instance, says that loneliness, more than any other health issue, ails her today.
“My son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter live with me and my husband. Yet, there is hardly anyone I can talk to freely,” she said. “I understand that the children lead busy lives. Dinner is the only time in the day we all sit together, but with early mornings, meetings and exams, time is always rationed.” Das is 66 and her husband, 70—both retired from government jobs and draw pension. Although they would love company, the mere thought of a retirement home is a strict no-no. “Why should we seek the company of strangers when our own are around?” Das asked.
A growing number of younger people, however, are diverging from this viewpoint. “I know the challenges of taking care of the elderly at the same time as raising a child. You get pulled at both ends, plus you have a job to handle and a household to run,” said Tina, 42, who lives with her ten-year-old son and husband, along with her in-laws in Delhi. “In 20-25 years’ time, my son would probably be in the same place as I am today—honestly, I don’t want that for him.”
Both Tina and her husband work in the corporate sector, and have been talking about signing up for a senior living facility in Uttarakhand. “It’s a realisation that dawned upon us individually, so we are happy to be on the same page,” she said. Delhi-based Risha Verma, 45, has similarly decided to move in to a retirement home once she touches 65. A writer, Verma is single and lives with her mother who is 70. “My mother often asks me, ‘You are there for me; who will be there for you?’” Verma shares.
She adds: “Ten-twenty years back this would have been a concern but today there is a choice of retirement homes in India which encourage active living. I could have my own space, take my own decisions and live a life I want—with dignity and just like I am doing right now. Plus, when I need help, there will be someone to assist.”
This shift in thought process has been witnessed by Vishal Gupta, managing director of Ashiana Housing too. Gupta, whose company has five operational senior living residential projects in different parts of the country, said that the number of enquiries has “shot up”, especially after COVID-19. The peak of the COVID-19 in 2020-21 exposed different vulnerabilities—one among them was of elderly people living on their own.
“There has been a drop of at least five years in the age-group of people who are enquiring or requesting site visits of our senior living projects,” Gupta told Lounge. These projects which are in Bhiwadi (NCR), Jaipur, Lavasa and Chennai, have independent houses designed to suit the elderly and has amenities such as club houses, swimming pools, walking tracks and cafeterias, apart from medical aid. “During the pandemic, our kitchen was running full-time and delivering food to our residents at their doorstep,” Gupta said, “Seniors have the option to request food delivery but most prefer to eat in company of others in the cafeteria.”
Assisted living—when one may need short-term or long-term care, pre- or post-operative care—is also an option in some of these senior living projects.
According to Mordor Intelligence, a market research agency, southern Indian cities like Bengaluru, Chennai, Kochi and Coimbatore are emerging as hubs for senior living communities, driven by pleasant climate, good connectivity and prominent healthcare providers. Another driving factor, according to Bengaluru-based counsellor, Mini Sukumar Nair, is people not willing to call their children for help.
“This is one of reasons for geriatric anxiety which is also on the rise. I had three such cases in the past one week,” she said.
“My mother-in-law, for instance, lives on her own in Kerala and does not want to depend on her children for any decision,” Nair went on, “Two of my aunts moved into senior homes. Someone I know also moved into one here in Bengaluru while her children live in the same city. It was a conscious decision with everyone on board.” This, or the fact that “40-year-olds are now talking about booking a place for themselves in senior living facilities” stems from the same reason—preserving a sense of self-worth and not compromising on the kind of life they choose for themselves.
It also points towards a shift in parent-child dynamics. Gupta of Ashiana Housing shared that people are moving away from the mindset of ‘leave everything for the kids’ and towards ‘raise the kids well and use my wealth to better my quality of life’. Parents are now travelling more, picking up new hobbies and experimenting long-held dreams. Call it whatever—lowering sense of attachment or detaching love from guilt.
Having said that, in most cases, those in their 40s or 50s who are thinking of senior homes, would not suggest the same to their own parents. “It’s easier taking such a decision for yourself,” Verma said. Tina added that the weight of such a decision is immense for anyone, “which is why I want to take that call for myself”. Which makes you wonder: even in thinking about themselves, parents are looking out for their kids. It’s just how they are doing so that is changing.
Azera Parveen Rahman is a writer currently based in Bhuj, Gujarat