Indians never tire of pointing out how our family values ensure that we respect our elders, unlike in the West, where the elderly are often sent to old age homes. This is true to an extent but, increasingly, the elderly find themselves unwanted by their own families as the story of 75-year-old woman who was thrown out onto a garbage heap in Tamil Nadu shows. The semi-paralysed woman’s family did not want to care for her and hence this cruel act. With the joint family system breaking up and people migrating to cities, the care of the elderly is an issue that the government needs to focus on.
The percentage of older people in the country is 6.9 per cent. Most have no safety net barring their families. The government has done well to bring forward the Older Persons (Maintenance, Care and Protection) Bill which aims at protecting the elderly and prescribing the State’s responsibility in this regard. If enacted, this Bill will enable senior citizens who cannot maintain themselves to apply to a maintenance tribunal seeking a monthly allowance from their children or heirs. State governments will also be asked to set up old age homes in each district. The maximum maintenance will be Rs 10,000 and the fine for refusing to comply will be Rs 5,000 or three months imprisonment. On paper, this sounds wonderful. But there are several glitches here. For a start, what happens to older people who do not have children or heirs? Will the State take care of them? Governments are only advised, not required, to set up old age homes — they can choose not to. Himachal Pradesh had passed a similar Bill in 2001 after an elderly couple filed a complaint against their children. Such laws, if implemented, could empower older citizens considerably. But the rub lies in implementing such legislations.
As of 2005, there were only 1,018 old age homes in India. Though the concept of old age homes is traumatic to many older people, the government has to work to create more such places for them. Another positive measure would be to step up old age pension programmes and insurance schemes so the elderly are at least financially independent.