India: No Country For Old People? As India competes in the global economy, new challenges arise for its aging population, who once relied on their children to help them through old age. Morning Edition commentator Sandip Roy explains.
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India: No Country For Old People?

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India: No Country For Old People?

India: No Country For Old People?

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This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

The Indian Diaspora has split many extended families and left millions of Indian parents back home. There aren't a lot of services in India for older people, because traditionally, they live with their children. And that has created a dilemma for those children who are far away, something commentator Sandip Roy knows all about. He lives in San Francisco, and his mother is still in India. He recently went back to see what life is like for older Indians.

SANDIP ROY: At Mumbai's Harmony Senior Center, Madan Engineer and his friends spend every day playing carom - a sort of cross between billiards and shuffleboard.

Mr. MADAN ENGINEER: From 10 to seven, we can stay here. There is no club like this club in Bombay.

ROY: My grandparents and great-grandparents didn't seem to need clubs. They all lived in our house. I remember my great-grandmother making her own pickles, teaching me about gods and goddesses, playing endless games of solitaire in the sun.

Mr. MANGA ADVANI: Times have changed.

ROY: That's Manga Advani. I visited him at his home in New Delhi. His son is a friend of mine in California.

Mr. ADVANI: For the generation now, most of them just fly away out of the country. They don't have much time for their parents.

ROY: A child abroad was once a badge of pride for Indian parents. Money sent home gave them a boost up the economic ladder. But it's hard to be a dutiful child from across oceans. When my father died, I wasn't even able to get home before he was cremated. Irudaya Rajan, a demographer, says this is a common problem.

Mr. IRUDAYA RAJAN (Demographer): Anybody dies today, the body will be kept in two or three days in the mortuary with all the ice, because we got somebody has to come from Canada, somebody has to come from London.

ROY: The problem isn't just that the children are off chasing the American dream. Eighty-one million Indians are over age 60. But in the new India, old age isn't what it used to be. Once, someone told me, the grandfather always got the prized fish head at dinner. Now, that goes to the grandson.

The government recently had to pass a law requiring children to take care of their parents. There were too many cases of seniors abandoned on the streets. Matthew Cherian runs the advocacy group Help Age India.

Mr. MATTHEW CHERIAN (Help Age India): So very often, these children leave the parents in different parts. Then we put them in an old-age home, which is actually meant for the poor and the destitute. Though this person may be middle class, we have no other option but to place him or her in a destitute home.

ROY: When I was growing up, the only homes for the aged were for poor Indians who had no family. They were run by people like Mother Teresa. We took donations of old clothes and cans of evaporated milk. Today, there's still not much help for seniors beyond their families.

There's no social security, and few Indians have pensions. Aloka Mitra set up a home for older women in Calcutta in the 1970s. A government minister tried to talk her out of it.

Ms. ALOKA MITRA (Founder, Naba Nir): He said, do you ladies have nothing better to do, and so you're thinking up all these problems which don't exist? In our society, the aging are well looked after. And it's ridiculous for us to even think of supporting a home for the aged.

ROY: The home she started, Naba Nir, is still going strong. Mitra, at 69, is now older than some of the residents.

Ms. MITRA: My son and daughter are both in London. You know, my husband and I, we are also aging. And maybe in 10 years' time, we will be needing a home for the aging ourselves.

ROY: And they might choose a newer, more popular option: a pay-for-stay home or a retirement community with uniformed maids and bonsai classes. Betty Kamath moved back to Bangalore to live in one after more than a decade in California with her children. She shows me a family photograph with four generations of Kamaths.

Ms. BETTY KAMATH: Three great-grandsons. So cute.

ROY: But the youngest one looks a little out of place. That's because he has been carefully pasted into the picture. Betty has never seen him in person. She was happy in California until her rheumatoid arthritis got worse. She was ready for a nursing home, but not one in America.

Ms. KAMATH: I saw the way the guards treated the older people. They were quite rude. And, I mean, you won't find that in India.

ROY: In India, Betty can afford a 24-7 personal attendant. But an old-age home still carries a tinge of stigma in India. Before she moved back, she wrote a letter to all the relatives explaining this was her decision.

Ms. KAMATH: Because you know how people talk. They would have said, oh, they sent their mother back.

ROY: In California, Betty's daughter, Cynthia D'souza, remembers when her mother told her about the decision.

Ms. CYNTHIA D'SOUZA: At that time I said, are you sure, mom? And she was so definite. And all she did was she said, can you help me in this transition? The tears just flowed.

ROY: Helping her mother move back to India had made Cynthia think about her own retirement.

Ms. D'SOUZA: But my children are all here. And I feel it would be a disservice for them to feel obligated to come see us and to make that journey. So I think we'll make ourselves happy here. We owe it to our kids.

ROY: Cynthia and her siblings stay in touch with their mother through annual visits and weekly calls, just like I do.

The last time I visited my mother in India, she told me to buy a CD with her new favorite song.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

ROY: It's about a couple who move to a retirement home because they have no place in their children's busy lives. My mother loves it, even though she lives with my sister and the grandchildren. I think sometimes she, too, feels this new India is no country for old women.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Commentator Sandip Roy is host of NEW AMERICA NOW on KALW in San Francisco.

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