HomeCultureHelpAge India Aims to Create A Society Where Elderly Have the Right to an Active, Healthy and Dignified Life

HelpAge India Aims to Create A Society Where Elderly Have the Right to an Active, Healthy and Dignified Life

The Problem

Throughout the 75 years of her life, Mamata Prasad has raised her son with indelible care and love. Despite this, as reported by One India news, it has been almost seven years since the septuagenarian has last met not only her son, but also her daughter-in-law and her nine-year-old granddaughter. These past seven years, instead of enjoying the presence of love from her family members whom she so dearly cares for, Prasad has been living a life of unbearable loneliness and depression at an old age home in New Delhi. Prasad was forced to stay in the old age home after her son and daughter-in-law started harassing her over “petty issues”, proclaiming that they could not look after her anymore. Her children eternally imprisoned her in the old age home, and yet, Prasad’s undying love for her children has not wavered. In fact, Prasad has only one wish left in her life, to hug her family members before she dies.

Untitled2Sadly, Mamata Prasad’s case of neglect, loneliness, and depression is not uncommon in India. Elderly oppression has ironically become a pervasive issue in an ancient country that has been known to value and greatly respect the old age demographic. The once persistent mindset of Indian youngsters respecting and taking good care of their elders, established by India’s bygone joint-family system, is now being overtaken by a new mindset that has been created by the increasing tendency of children to migrate and leave their parents behind in pursuit of careers. It is a mindset that frames caring for elders as more of a burden than a responsibility, and it is quickly evolving into a social norm, as evident with the clear lack of awareness for the needs of the isolated elderly. With traditional modes of family support declining and a growing number of their children migrating in search of better opportunities, thousands of elderly Indians are without any sort of physical, social, emotional and financial support and, as a result, are paying the price for it. Dumped and left alone to suffer in India, the elderly experience profound challenges and struggles on a daily basis, and yet there is little to no awareness for it. According to a World Health Organization report, more than 50% of the 100 million elderly people currently living in India experience abuse of some form on a daily basis. In the same report, it was found that more than 55 million senior citizens sleep hungry, approximately 30 million elderly Indians live alone, close to 12 million elders are going blind with no means to afford treatment, and around 90% of all elderly citizens, even those well into their 80’s and 90’s, are forced to work in order to eat. With the elderly population in India expected to increase by close to 360% over the next 40 years, likely constituting more than 20% of India’s total population itself by 2050, there is no question that steps must be taken to eradicate the pervasiveness of elderly oppression before it becomes an immortal trend that is impossible to defeat.

The People

Thankfully, an effort that started 36 years ago has seen the birth of a movement that ensures that the old forlorn figure no longer needs to remain alone, uncared for or ignored. This movement has flowered out today as a non-profit organization called HelpAge India. Formed in 1978 by philanthropists Samson Daniel and Cecil Jackson-Cole, HelpAge India became the first definitive body dedicated to voicing and attending to the concerns of India’s vast and growing elderly population. Over the last three decades, the organization has certainly lived up to its mission statement: “To work for the cause and care of disadvantaged older persons and improve their quality of life.” HelpAge has handled more than 3,000 projects aimed at helping seniors live a life of dignity and has put numerous welfare and developmental programs in place that have successfully fought for the rights of disadvantaged older people so that they can be economically and physically secure.

The Solution

As mentioned before, times have changed in India in terms of the cultural importance of elderly people in Indian society. The joint-family system in particular was highly valued, ideally consisting of several generations residing, working, eating, and worshiping together. However, that system has given away to a new social norm of elders being more of a burden than a responsibility. Mathew Cherian, the current CEO of HelpAge India explained this in an interview I conducted with him a couple months ago, as he said, “There is migration in all socioeconomic categories, the poor migrate [domestically] because they don’t have work, others migrate to foreign countries for better [opportunities] than in India. As a result the dependency ratio, which shows how dependent youngsters are on their parents, is decreasing and that adds to the problem since the children aren’t there to take care of their elderly parents.” In order to counteract this trend, HelpAge India has deployed a number of diverse programs in an effort to raise awareness for elderly abuse while also directly helping those that are oppressed. The keys to the success of these programs are not that they advocate for a “return” to the joint-family system, but rather they tackle the three underlying levels of oppression; financial, medical, and emotional instability. Below are some notable programs that HelpAge India has started:Untitled3

  • Mobile Medicare Unit: Also known as MMU, the Mobile Medicare Unit was HelpAge India’s first welfare program. The main purpose of the MMU is to provide disadvantaged elderly with free medical assistance by taking medicare to the abused in cars; hence the name “Mobile” Medicare Unit. Each car or unit is staffed with a qualified doctor, a pharmacist, and a social worker. The on-site services include doctor consultation, basic diagnostics, medicines and home visits for bedridden patients, and transportation to local health facilities. Today the MMU program provides more than 1.7 million free treatments to over 140,000 patients annually and is spread across 22 of India’s 29 states.
  • Student Action for Value Education: Also known as SAVE, Student Action for Value Education is a crucial program started up by HelpAge that raises awareness of elderly abuse amongst India’s youth. The program aims at inculcating values of age-care and respect for the elderly; preparing children for their own old age and creating an age-friendly society. The importance of increasing initiative amongst the modern generation is so great that HelpAge hopes to ultimately work with select state governments to introduce age-care education in school curriculum. As CEO Mathew Cherian explained, “It is the effort of the youth to care for and look after the elderly that is so vital…Without that belief in our future generations, naturally the elderly of today feel bereft of any means of hope.”
  • Help Unite Generations: Also known as HUG, the Help Unite Generations was started in response to the rise in problems of isolation faced by elders. As mentioned before, one of the main reasons for the rise of elderly loneliness and depression in India is because of the growing cultural/generation gap between youth and elderly people. As society progresses to nuclear families, the elders are left mostly alone without companionship of family and young children. The HUG initiative aims to alleviate any sense of isolation among senior citizens by enthusing youth volunteers to engage with elders through keeping in touch via telephone calls and occasional face to face meetings.

In addition to establishing these programs, HelpAge India believes that one of the most important ways to end elderly abuse is by establishing universal pension rights for senior citizens. Currently, employment linked pensions are generally restricted to the elderly in solely the organized sector. However, the groups that are most in need of old age pension are largely in the unorganized sector which provides almost 90% of India’s employment opportunities, but has no system of building pension funds. It is in this context that HelpAge has been consistently and successfully lobbying for old age pensions. Cherian reinforced this notion by saying, “We are arguing for universal pension [for the elderly] because with pension, those that have been oppressed will finally have some food to eat and have some systems of care.” The organization has had tremendous influence in pushing the Indian government to meet their demands for improved pension rights. In fact, after rallying with Pension Parishad for a charter of demands, HelpAge was successfully able to get the India government to announce the acceptance of universalization of pension. The specifics of the charter of demands can be seen at http://pensionparishad.org/.

Future Outlook

In the 36 years since its inception, HelpAge India has truly served to lay and strengthen the foundation of the movement for elderly rights. Through its various welfare and developmental programs, the organization has set an unparalleled footprint in India, as its influence sprawls across the country from Kashmir in the north to Kanyakumari in the south, and from Arunachal Pradesh in the east to Gujarat in the west. Despite the organization’s tremendous efforts over the last 36 years, elderly abuse is still on the rise and on the verge of spiraling out of control. HelpAge India is aware of the alarming statistics that confront India’s senior citizens of the status quo and the future, but that doesn’t mean it will back down. It will continue to institute more programs and expand its already successful ones while also push for more necessary modifications such as universal pension rights. The organization is determined to make sure that the plight suffered by India’s elderly will be stopped short of irreplaceable devastation. 



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