Ageing gracefully
by R. L. Singal

The Greying of India
by Rajgopal Dhar Chakraborti. Sage Publications, New Delhi. Pages 470. Rs 880.

The Greying of IndiaThis book on population ageing is useful for students and researchers in the field of demography (study of statistics of births, deaths, diseases etc as illustrating conditions of life in communities) as well as for the general reader, keen to know the problems and status of the aged in the world, particularly in Asia and further specifically in India.

The steady and spectacular transition from high to relatively low mortality and fertility rates has fundamentally altered the age composition of most of Asia’s population, including India.

The number of elderly people all over the globe has tripled over the last 50 years and this number is expected to further triple in the next 50 years with better healthcare and environment awareness. Society has to cope with this new phenomenon particularly in the changing scenario of values of the youth, their craving for independence, growing individualism and the accelerating pace of mobility.

The book presents a comprehensive analysis (with the help of tons of data and mind-boggling tables and charts) of the causes and consequences of ageing and possible solutions of the problems thrown up by this phenomenon of the rapidly growing population of the aged in India. The book admirably explains how a rapid and spectacular transition from high to relatively low mortality and fertility rates has fundamentally altered the age composition of India’s population.

In 1900, the average life expectancy was probably less than 30 years. This figure had risen to 41 years by 1950 and during the five years of 2000-2005, the UN puts the average life expectancy for males and females in Asia at 65.8 and 69.2 years, respectively. While Asian women had an average of almost six births each during the period 1950-1955, the UN estimates that this figure fell to about 2.5 births per woman by 2000-05. Because of this fertility decline accompanied by increased human mobility, elderly people in Asia will probably have fewer adult children around to interact with and assist them than has generally been the case hitherto.

The challenges will lie in developing satisfactory policies of steady income and family support for those who can no longer work, whereas independent living accommodation (after the disintegration of the institution of joint family) and healthcare expenditures tend to rise sharply with advancing age.

With more and more children getting educated, with their migration from villages to towns and with old humble cottages in their native places getting abandoned, and the break-up of the joint families, the aged have been left to fend for themselves. The condition of the single elderly is even more pitiable because of the gnawing feeling of loneliness.

With almost no social security assistance, erratic and meagre old-age pensions (except for those retiring from government service), it is almost impossible for the aged to live with self-esteem and dignity. Even the right to honourable death, in many cases, does not exist.

There are six chapters in this book and the most important one is Graceful Ageing. The author says that individuals, regardless of age, sex or creed should contribute according to their abilities and be served according to their needs. Ageing, according to him, is a symbol of experience and wisdom. How healthy and vibrant a society shall we be if the youth start looking upon the aged as repositories of experience and wisdom instead of as remnants of a decrepit and obsolete order.