Kerala finds itself facing a huge human development challenge in the form of its elderly population,burgeoning faster than in any other state.
At one time,this population was a showcase for Keralas health facilities and living conditions. Now,more and more elderly people are being abandoned or tortured by heir families.
On Saturday,for instance,Kunjamma,85,was rescued from a locked house at Adimali in Idukki district. A neighbour had heard feeble whimpers,and police broke in. A mother of four,Kunjamma told the police she was not being given food and that her son,who had locked her in,used to torture her. Police shifted her to a home as none of her sons was willing to look after her.
Many other elderly people have been abandoned in their houses across the state,uncared for,their presence sometimes undetected till their death. There have also been instances of the elderly being dumped in public places and of going to court against their children (see list).
A growing elderly population is a global phenomenon but Keralas demographic transition from a state with high mortality and high fertility to one with a low count in both of these outpaces that of the rest of the country by 25 years,according to the Kerala Development Report published by the Planning Commission in 2008. Its findings highlight the contrast,which is starkest in the index of ageing,nearly twice as much in Kerala as in the rest of the country.
Keralas 60-plus population,5.1 per cent of the total in 1961,was just below the national 5.6 per cent. Since 1980,Kerala has overtaken the rest and the 2001 comparison is 10.5 per cent to 7.5. At the other end of the spectrum,the proportion of the young has declined faster than elsewhere.
Among the reasons cited are heavy migration of the young out of Kerala,and the frequent return of the elderly to spend their sunset years.
According to Prof S Irudaya Rajan,who has analysed the demographic transition,population projections for the next few decades indicate a tougher challenge ahead. The 60-plus share of the population rose from 5 per cent in 1961 to roughly 8 per cent in 20 years,then by another three percentage points in the next 20 years. The next similar jump,to 14 per cent,is projected by 2016.
And the 70-plus and 80-plus population,10 lakh and 2.9 lakh in 1991,will multiply to a projected 25 lakh and 8 lakh in 2021. In Pathanamthitta district,those above 70 already represent 15 per cent of the population.
The old-age support ratio,that of the working-age population (15-59) to the eldery population (60-plus), dropped from 9 in 1961 to 7 in 1991 and is projected to hit 4 by 2021.
By the middle of the century,Prof Rajan says,over a quarter of Keralas population will be above 60. Then,each household will have more than one elderly person on an average,and a major share of the family income will go into taking care of them. The growth rate of the elderly population is expected to be the highest in 2011-2021 among the respective rates for the next four decades,he says.
Home outside home
Decades ago,the practice of the elderly living with non-relatives or strangers was not common in Kerala. But by 2002,a study by the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram found,Kerala had 134 old-age homes,a fifth of the total in the country. By 2010,the Kerala total had reached 250-odd,counting only old-age homes that take government aid.
The actual number of old-age homes would be much higher,since several homes do not take government grants, says Dr A Prathapan,chief executive officer in the social welfare department. The government gives old-age homes Rs 300 per inmate per month. A monthly allowance of Rs 1,000 is given to family members as compensation for looking after an elderly person in his or her home. But for the allowance,they would go to work outside.
Though Kerala has the highest number of old-age homes in the country,a CDS survey in 2009 showed that most of the elderly preferred to stay in their own homes. This is due to the perception around old-age homes,supposedly meant for only the destitute,though that has changed somewhat because of new homes modelled on star resorts.
The state has several such modern old-age homes and retreat centres,where the retired have to pay 75 per cent of their pension apart from a deposit of Rs 4 to 5 lakh for spending the last years of their lives.
Need for help
Of late,local newspapers have begun to carry classifieds under titles such as Wanted,to look after parents. Many of these ads are by people living abroad,whose parents live alone in Kerala.
The government,for its part,recently launched a pilot project,Vayo Mithram,or friend of the elderly. The scheme involves four aspects: mobile clinics,palliative care with patients being visited by health workers,a round-the-clock ambulance service,and a help desk for the elderly.
Kerala Social Security Mission director Dinesh Bhaskar says Vayo Mithram is the first of its kind in the country. The scheme,now introduced in a dozen cities,will be gradually spread across the state. On an average day,we get 20 distress calls from the elderly from a district. They seek medical attention,transportation to hospital,and other support which their families have failed to provide. Despite the crass neglect,the elderly in Kerala are reluctant to complain against their families, Bhaskar said.
Prof Rajan says only 25 per cent of the elderly are beneficiaries of various pension schemes in Kerala. A large proportion of the elderly in Kerala are compelled to work, he says.
Across the state,very old persons can frequently be seen working at jobs as guards. At night,an elderly man draped in a woollen shawl and sitting in front of an ATM is a common sight in the towns.
Age of neglect
A car drops an elderly woman at Thriprayar in Thrissur and drives away. Suffering from dementia,she is admitted to a rescue home but cannot recollect where she comes from or name anyone of her family.
Police arrest a woman on charges of not taking care for her elderly mother,Nandini,of Kilimanoor near Thiruvananthapuram. The mother earlier moved the Tribunal for the Maintenance of Parents against her son and daughter. The tribunal ordered the wards to give their mother a monthly payment; the daughter allegedly failed.
Retired nurse Raicheal,60,was living alone at Chengannor in Alappuzha,her only link to the world outside being a panchayat member,a woman. With Raicheal having gone out of touch for three days,the panchayat member takes police help and breaks into the house. They find Raicheal unconscious; she dies days later.
Kamalakshni,70,is found abandoned in a bus shelter in Kottayam. She has been there the whole night,discharged from a hospital the previous day and then dumped by her only son on their way back home. Social activists take her to an old-age home,where she dies later.
Kunjeli,82,of Mulanchuruthy near Kochi is found ailing in her house,her body full of wounds,festering and infested by worms. Mother of six,she was living alone and depending on neighbours. An NGO working among elderly spinsters rescues her.
Rosella Fernandaz,retired from Central service,was living alone in an apartment in Kochi. A relative comes visiting,notices a stench,breaks open the door and finds Rosellas decomposed body. Rosella’s two sons live in another apartment in the same city.