The autumn years of one's life should ideally be those in which you can really do pretty much what you please. But, only if you are in good health. And on this front, the news is not so encouraging. The Global Burden of Disease Study, 2010, reveals that the average Indian man's life expectancy at birth has increased by nearly 15 years and for women by 18 years in the last four decades. While this is a positive sign, the downside is that the number of years they remain healthy is much less. An Indian male can expect to be in good health only till he reaches the age of about 54 years and will have to battle various ailments for the last nine years of his life. The average Indian woman is likely to spend the last 10.4 years of her life in poor health. Household air pollution from chulhas (especially in rural areas), smoking/second hand smoke, high blood pressure, childhood underweight and low fruit intake have been identified as the main factors contributing to poor health.
For India whose greying population is likely to double by 2026, according to recent population projections, this study underlines the urgent need to tackle what has till now been largely a grey area really. With an abysmally low doctor-patient ratio - one doctor for 1,953 people, health services in India are not able to effectively tackle even basic illnesses, leave alone the more complex old age ones like dementia or Alzheimer's. What's more, senior citizens are rarely eligible for medical insurance. In the past, the elderly got some care from the family. But with the rise of nuclear families today, the cases of the elderly facing abuse, neglect and exploitation at the hands of family members are on the rise. But such cases often go unreported either to uphold family honour or because they are perceived as domestic matters.
Though the National Programme for Healthcare of the Elderly 2010, committed to improve the national response to the health of the elderly, is comprehensive in theory, the elderly are still considered by many as a liability, people who have outlived their utility value. This is why the State has to step in to ensure the protection of those who are no longer able to help themselves. It needs to focus more on geriatric care, assisted living and avenues of employment for the elderly. These will help make old age that much less grey and melancholic.