Elder abuse is a bit like AIDS in India.

We know it’s a big problem; we’ve even heard it’s a crisis. But most of us, especially in middle class India, insist it doesn’t happen in our families.

Oops, We Lost Grandma

Yet a nine-city HelpAge India survey of elders released last month claimed more than one-fifth of the elderly surveyed have experienced some kind of abuse or the other, usually from family members, especially bahu-beta. Bangalore tops the list, followed by Hyderabad. Physical abuse is the highest in Patna.

But most of our lives seem strangely untouched by it.

Part of the problem is almost all the elderly, nearly 98 percent, chose not to file legal complaints.

But the other part of the problem is when all these studies come out, the stories you always hear are the most extreme ones.

For example, elder dumping. That’s right, take grandma from her home near Kingsway Camp in New Delhi and leave her out in Ghaziabad to fend for herself. It happens, says Matthew Cherian of HelpAge India. HelpAge had had to reunite these lost seniors with the rest of the family. But can you really “reunite” someone with the very children who dumped them in the first place?

Well, the law is pretty strict about elder abuse. But also this is India, says Cherian. There are social pressures. “All the neighbours say, ‘Oh, look at those children, they left the parent on the road.’” So they take grandma back.

Hidden in the Back Bedroom

Go to any old age home in India and you’ll hear these kinds of horror stories. At Naba Nir, a home for older women in Kolkata, I met Gauri Nandy, an anxious looking widow in her seventies. She says she moved here after her sons and daughters-in-law assaulted her.

She had refused to sign over the title of her house to them after her husband died.

“They pushed me down,” she says softly. “I hurt my leg badly. I had to go to the hospital.

There was blood in my stool.” Now she shares a blue-washed dormitory room with a dozen other women. There’s a garlanded black and white photograph of her late husband on her nightstand, a picture of Hanuman and a small potted plant. She misses her old garden, she says. She used to have lotus, jasmine,bel.

“Now I don’t know who looks after them,” she says.

These stories shock us. But in a way they also insulate us from the real problem which is far more ubiquitous.

Not everyone is pushing their old mother down the stairs. But we brush older people aside in ways we don’t even realise. A survey from the Agewell Foundation in New Delhi found that 87 percent of elders in the 70-80 age group complain of isolation. And that happens even when they are living with family, at home. They just find themselves shunted off to the back bedroom.

In 2050 400 million people will be over 80 all over the world. 48.1 million of them will be in India. That doesn’t mean India will become a sea of grey. The median age of Indians will still be only 38. But 48.1 million people can’t be shoved into the back bedroom either.

Of Pashmina Shawls and Government Commissions

The paradox is in some ways we’ve gotten what we wanted. For example, a child abroad was often a badge of pride for parents. But now they are also paying the price.

Ruprekha Chowdhury, who studied old age homes in West Bengal for her doctorate, recalls walking into a plush retirement community near Calcutta. One resident sized her up immediately.

“The old lady said ‘Hmm, where are you from? My son lives in Arizona. See this shawl. It’s pashmina wool. He gave it to me,’” remembers Chowdhury.

The elders left behind by migration might have expensive shawls. But they are also dealing with their own kind of abandonment.

The answer to this quandary is not going to be more government commissions. The well being of seniors is already written into the Indian constitution. There is a National Policy for Older Persons. It’s been there since 1999. There’s an inter-ministry commission set up to implement it. “It met only four times in ten years,” says Cherian of HelpAge India. The harsh truth is infant mortality will always be higher priority than geriatric care. Even if our Prime Minister is pushing 80.

The answer is also not going to be about forcing children to take care of their elders. That’s already written into the law as well. Gauri Nandy tells me she did her best to raise her children properly. One works for the local electricity board. Another works at a tanning factory. “If sons act like this what can we do?” she says. “Elders need to be respected. Do we now have to teach that?”

Perhaps not. But what we might need to teach ourselves is that old age isn’t just about our children and what they will or won’t do for us.

The Dis-joint Family

Getting ready for old age is about financial security. It’s about health insurance. It’s about infrastructure. And that doesn’t mean just more retirement homes. Our cities aren’t age friendly. A recent AP report says in the U.S. cities are waking up to a brave new (old) world. Seniors will soon outnumber schoolchildren in New York City. They are trying to figure out how to serve the aging population. One idea is use idling school buses to take seniors shopping. Atlanta is trying to create “lifelong communities.” Philadelphia is working on “walkable” communities.

There might be wheel chair ramps here. But there are no rails to hold on to. “Aging came to India before development,” says Indira Jaiprakash, a gerontologist in Bangalore. “Western countries developed first and then longevity came.”

Most of all it’s about attitude. It’s easy to just long for some golden Ram Rajya when all elders were revered, daughter-in-law pressed mother-in-law’s feet everyday and the joint family was intact. Think again. “There were always older people being kicked out by their children,” says Sarah Lamb, professor of anthropology at Brandeis University and the author of White Saris and Sweet Mangoes. “It’s just that now you blame modernity and globalisation.”

Not Your Grandmother’s India, Anymore

The fact is most older people are themselves not really prepared to enter this new world of old age. Dr. A. B. Dey, head of geriatric services at AIIMS, worries the Hindu concept of rebirth can actually be a bit of an obstacle. “Here you can offer the best care to a sick old person and he will say why prolong this life,” says Dey. “Didn’t the Bhagavad Gita say that is a rotten body and the soul needs a new home?”

In this new India seniors have to demand their rights. They will have to realise they have political clout. “The elderly are a vote bank. Their political significance is increasing,” says sociologist Ashis Nandy. “At the moment they are not seriously considered in electoral calculations. But it will come.”

“Old people still deny themselves,” adds Himansu Rath of Agewell Foundation. “You ask your father for Rs 3,000 to buy jeans and he will give you the money. You ask him to buy himself two undershirts. And he will say no need. That attitude needs to change first.”
That means we need a little less Baghban, please. How about a little moreBbuddah Hoga Terra Baap instead?

Sandip Roy is on leave as an editor with New America Media in San Francisco, and is currently the culture editor with FirstPost.com in Calcutta.