Reading a remarkable essay by Atul Gawande in The New Yorker recently, I was alarmed to know for most of our existence, excepting only a couple of hundred years, the average life span of human beings has been 30 years or less. Considering that subjects of the Roman Empire had an average life expectancy of 28 years, we look like freaks living well beyond our appointed time.
So should the news that average life expectancy in India jumped up by 4.6 years in the decade up to 2008 - 64.6 years for men and 67.7 years for women - as per recent data from the Registrar General of India be hailed? In view of the fact that just 50 million of India's 450 million workforce are covered by any form of old-age pension and half of them work with the government, could we really avert an old-age poverty crisis? By 2025, there will be about 1,200 million people aged 65 years according to UN estimates, while 7% of the 1.1 billion Indian population is today over the age of 60.
In the novel The Widows of Eastwick by John Updike, the famous American writer who died in old age himself, we get doddering characters with hands "repulsively emaciated and veined, their arthritic joints shiny with painful swelling" or ponder how bladders get moody, "sometimes not a drop though you know you have to go, and other times you laugh or sneeze and there go the underpants". According to Updike, it's a penalty for living longer than our cave-dwelling ancestors did. Diana Athill, author of an award-winning memoir (at the age of 91) titled Somewhere Towards the End, had to say that growing old is "simply what one has to pay for what one has enjoyed".
I am struck with wonder to see how the search for a long life has become a kind of modern equivalent of the alchemists' search for the philosopher's stone. And it is spectacular to see how medical research is trying to prolong life by arresting or reversing the ageing process. The rub is, growing old is tough because it means coming to terms with gradual decay and debilitation. As we grow old we have fewer real friends. Instead we get ailments to keep us in company.
In January 1999, a national policy on older persons was announced which identified a number of areas of intervention - financial security, healthcare and nutrition, shelter, education, welfare, protection of life and property - for the well-being of older people in the country. A National Council for Older Persons (NCOP) was constituted by the ministry of social justice and empowerment to operationalise the national policy on older persons. We have about 81 million older people in India and it's time to cross-check on the comprehensiveness of the policy decisions to see if we could add more life and not only years to our senior citizens.
Prasenjit Chowdhury is a Kolkata-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal