Life expectancy in India is rising with startling consequences for the traditional family unit. The conventional relationship between generations is changing -- slowly but surely, above all among the well-to-do educated middle classes.
Economic transformation in India is bringing changes to the traditional family unit too
“Meeta? Your friend has come to talk to you. This is Mrs Sekan, Mrs Sekan has been here for the last five years,” says the assistant at an old people’s home in New Delhi.
Meeta Sekan’s apartment has two rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. The 82-year-old is a trendsetter -- old people’s homes are a new phenomenon in India and go against the traditional idea of the family.
Sociologist Dipankar Gupta explains that if they were asked people “would probably say the joint family is ideal -- we love joint families, we live in joint families -- but if you go to their homes you find that they actually live in nuclear families or in an extended family but not as a joint family.”
The family tends to consist of father, mother and children under one roof -- grandparents and even aunts and uncles are becoming increasingly rare. One reason is economic change.
Nedirat Kapoor works with the NGO HelpAge India: “Younger people are moving either from rural areas into cities or from cities into other countries or other cities in search of better opportunities. That leaves the elderly behind.“
Meeta Sekan is but one example. She explains that her family all lives in England and that it is very difficult for them to come, “so they don’t come.”
Change of women’s role
But even if parents and children do live in the same area; more and more, old people are being put into homes.
Daughters-in-law, who traditionally tended to care for their in-laws and would accept a lot of grief from the family, are now resisting, says Dipankar Gupta.
“They don’t want to be doormats any longer so the tension between in-laws is often quite palpable. Women want to work, want to earn their living, want to realize themselves; they don’t want to stay at home and look after old people as they would in the past unquestioningly.”
Unhappy older generation
However, this is true mainly for the middle classes, which can afford the costs of an old people’s home. 12,000 rupees a month is what Meeta Sekan’s relatives pay -- unimaginable money in the eyes of many Indians. Two-thirds of India’s 80 million elderly live under the poverty line.
But the rich elderly are also often unhappy, says Nedirat Kapoor: “Families have collapsed, they are increasingly facing isolation, loneliness and a whole lot of other issues which creep up as old age confronts you.“
Avtar Pennathur, who runs an old people’s home in Delhi, has a universal solution: “Old age needs preparation, to my mind, and that preparation should start much earlier in life.”