Wednesday, July 21, 2010


In today’s human society age based prejudices and discrimination are firmly embedded. Therefore, the word like ‘elderly’ has in itself acquired a negative connotation. For practical purposes, we define elderly as those people who have crossed a given life span, 65 years in developed countries and 60 years in developing countries like India. Growing old being a gradual process, such definition will always remain presumptuous and arbitrary. Elderly survivors of today, unlike all other generations throughout the remainder of the recorded human history, are those whose lived experience embraces massive scientific, technological, and social changes that occurred in the last century. But unfortunately for them improvement in the quality of life has not been proportional to the increases in quantity of life. Unlike upto the mid-life, satisfaction of an elderly depends on the presence of a spouse, children, social support, income, good physical and emotional health, adequate housing and transportation and independence. But we must remember that elderly are not a homogeneous category because of which their needs are also not uniform. The elderly are not only expected to adjust to the society but also to the crucial events in their life. First category of such events is related to the process of aging of the elderly. Second set of such events is related to the historical time when these individuals are growing old. Hence the process of demographic transition, industrialization and development affect the status of the elderly. Often than not, in this process of adjustment elderly internalizes negative societal perceptions. These attitudes combined with frequent losses (e.g. job, spouse, status, home) lead the elderly to acquire debased self-image and deflated self-esteem. Moreover, the elderly because of increasing lack of control over their life constantly feel a lack of self-efficacy. Physically the elderly experience many stresses, crisis and losses, in addition to their need to cope with a devalued status. For example they, unlike other segments of population, need more intervention even in minor physical matters, which may otherwise escalate into a major concern.
The study of social lives of the elderly covers a large area, ranging from interpersonal relationships, living arrangement, to retirement, to intergenerational equity, health, care giving, death, bereavement, and the politics of age. Due to the wide scope of this field, it is informed by multidisciplinary researches. It helps us to understand the diverse dimensions of what it is to be an elderly in our contemporary society. After all there are several factors in our society that contribute to the worsening relative position of the elderly.
Aging as a field of research developed rapidly in the last 60 years in response to a rapidly growing population of the older people, as well as due to newly emerging values in the society. Also, there has been a shift towards heightened research interest about the experiences across the life course. In the 19th and early 20th Century researchers mostly focused on the earlier years of life, i.e. childhood, youth, and early adult hood. But as the population significantly grew older by the second half of 20th century, the purview of life course research expanded to the latter years.
While studying aging, we must look into the perspectives and discourses that the elderly have towards their daily experiences. This approach focuses on ordinary experience of the elderly in their daily living, how they manage successes and face failures, and the manner in which they reconstruct their past and redefine their future in relation to present lived experiences. This process comprises the meanings that are based on how the elderly themselves interpret and discern about what is like to ‘become old’ and ‘being old’ in today’s world. The aging experience, therefore, includes the thoughts, feelings and actions of the elderly. As we know mundane life centers around the meanings that we make of various situations. Elderly do it on their own terms, as they interpersonally construct their social world depending on pleasurable or pernicious experiences of daily life.
This approach opens up new possibilities. The world is made up of particular kind of facts – not numbers, frequency tables or statistical tests – facts of life constructed by those whose lives are in question. Life is not viewed by the elderly, like the other segments of population, in terms of specific age categories. Just like the rest of us, for the elderly, a much more complex set of categories constitute their worlds. Like us the elderly also care for their loved ones, make a living, have their own friend circle and have their own idiosyncrasies. Other than their aggregation by age, these elderly can be like any other person in the society of any age category. Further, aging process is episodic in nature, so, its indices cannot be understood in a unilinear way. Thus, objective age of a person often do not have any bearing on that person’s subjective meaning of age.
We derive the meanings of our experiences from the views of others, from what is presented to us, learned from the way things are presented in mass media. Of course numerous other ways are there by which meanings are conveyed to us. We must also remember that the world of meaning varies from person to person, because its application is dependent on ones local social context. This contextuality can give a distinct dimension to the social understanding and to our personal interpretation.
In everyday life, the body, despite its objective condition, is assigned an enormous range of meanings that makes a great deal of difference as to what those meanings are to the individual. When ones body is casually described as fat, lean, youthful, aged or death like it does have an uplifting or devastating effect on that individual. In consequence of a person’s imagination, even the interpretation of that individual’s reflection in the mirror gets affected. Reflection in the mirror may have little bearing on how that individual feels behind the face. This is how the subjective body is constructed in the society. Subjective body is thus understood from a particular perspective, distinct from its objective existence in the world of everyday life. In our society, people’s reaction to an individual, to a large extent depends on the cultural definition of the body image. When these cultural definitions become motivated, the consequent effects of labeling make the elderly particularly susceptible to negative self-image.
Society tends to side with certain type of body image, like aesthetically youthful physical appearance is the benchmark for comparison and judgment in today’s society. The transient nature of modern society restricts its member’s knowledge about their fellow beings in terms of their outward physical appearances, not their social identity. Fast life, instrumental interrelationship and loss of social identity in today’s society naturally propel us to focus only on our appearance and manifest behavior that has an immediate impact. So we consciously try to project those aspects of our body that is in consonance with the social imperatives of civilized behavior. Controlled social image of an individual also manipulates one’s position of favor, influence and power.
The genesis of stigma towards the appearance of the elderly crops up because they do not remain agile enough to cope with the life style of modern society. Lack of reflexive control over the body exclude the elderly from acceptable standards, thus embedding a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ – in other words, ageism. Unless ageism is allowed to thrive, consumer capitalism will not be able to nurture the cult of youth, their captive consumer market. Under these circumstances, it is but natural that the elderly has to endure sufferance and indignities. Body image politics, therefore, not only shape the life of the elderly, but also maintains the power balance, thus controlling the opportunities available to them.


First, at individual level the elderly experience biophysical decline that includes their loss of physical strength and functioning, reproductive capacity and become prone to attacks of various diseases.

Second, at the psychological level the elderly at the prime of their maturity suddenly confront the inevitable shrinkage in their goals of life and diminishing self-esteem.

Third, sociologically, we know as a person progresses through the life, an individual has to perform diverse roles. They experience greater incidence of responsibility, their network of relationship gets wider, and thus, authority and decision taking power of the elderly is at its peak. This process takes an abrupt reverse turn for an elderly who after a ‘cutoff’ age has to endure a decline in his/her position, and fails to adjust to such a change.

Besides, we have to consider the impact that the changing society has on the elderly. Human history has gone through epochal changes giving rise to conditions, which are even difficult to adjust for those humans, who have brought such changes. One such change was transformation of the economy from predominantly agricultural to industrialized form with all its far-reaching ramifications in the socio-cultural sphere, popularly labeled as industrialization.

Majority of the elderly in the developing world face material poverty. Poverty related disadvantages are compounded further for the elderly due to their inadequate social, political and economic participation. This marginalizes the elderly from the mainstream society, which in effect perpetuates their social exclusion. Poverty resulting in poor housing facility, ill health, and insecurity bring about social inferiority, isolation and vulnerability for the elderly, thus making their infirmities more insurmountable.

With age, role performance of men and women become more diverse. In their dissimilar ways, though they responsibly perform important roles for their own families and communities, yet often the responsibilities undertaken by elderly women are not recognized and are undervalued. The needs for patronage also are gender specific for the elderly to a great extent. But due to our lack of knowledge and appreciation, society treats the elderly as an undifferentiated mass, thus gender specific requirements of the elderly remain unattained. Throughout the life course, as men and women experience the impact of social and economic structures differently, it is but natural that at the later years of life they will remain differentially placed in the society. Similarly, marriage experiences differ vastly for men and women. Motherhood and household chores extract much from the lives of women. Early age of marriage increases the density of widowhood among elderly women.

Countering poverty also has a gender dimension, in the sense that systems of social welfare and insurance in most cases do not provide for women the full benefits due to absence in their records of continuous paid employment. Again, women most likely do not own property and other assets, which they can use at the time of necessity. In developing countries the scenario of the elderly women is further complicated due to the fact that they lack access to educational opportunities, that restrict their avenues in the labor market. The unpaid and unorganized labor given by elderly women in household economies accord no guarantee to them about their future material security. Gender specific variation in health issue of the elderly is also seen. Poor nutrition, endemic communicable diseases, arduous and dangerous working conditions and violence are common in the lived experience of the elderly in the developing world. But due to the discriminatory nutritional practices, women experience greater disadvantage. Added to this women face problems related to reproductive health unique to their lot.

Mass migration of people is the highest common denominator in human civilization from mid 20th century that spans not only from the villages to the cities or between regions within a country but also across the international borders. It is not only witnessed due to economic reasons but also caused by political victimization, human disasters and natural calamities that result in displacement. In reality many factors of such migration actually have negative impact on the lives of the elderly, including both, who are migrating and those who remain behind.

The politics of age in the developing world make elderly vulnerable in emergency situations like human disasters (Bhopal tragedy, Gujrat riots) or natural calamities (Gujrat earthquake). As a whole, though the community suffers under the impact of such disasters, the elderly suffer the most, as politics of age leave little support system available for them. Thus, their capacity to respond and take care of themselves under such situation is seriously compromised. Due to the destitution of the families and communities, isolated elderly are left with no one to turn to but to fend for themselves. During such disasters even the capacity of the community is seriously compromised due to want of food, medical, material and human resources, which they could otherwise have had. Prejudice and discrimination can take effect in subtle ways against the elderly, under such emergency situations, because the priority structure of the organizational mechanism in our society often segregates them.

Politics of age actually neglects the knowledge of traditional coping strategies and alternative technical know-how’s of the elderly. It is the elderly who play an integrative role with their sense of history and identity of the community. In emergency situations such role can preserve a community from disintegrating as well as can lead to their regeneration. The politics of age instead of portraying elderly as givers, more likely show them as takers, of support.

The Indian elderly population being second largest in the world is the primary background condition for the politics of old age to work. Out of the total Indian population, elderly were 4.3 crores in 1981, 5.5 crores in 1991, 7.6 crores in 2001, more than 9 crore in 2007, and estimably will cross over 13crores mark in another 20 years. By any standards, the decadal percent growth in elderly population, which is double the rate of general population growth, is nightmarish for any policy-decision maker. It is but natural that the resources and efforts necessary would be stupendous for empowering these elderly. Another way of looking at this picture will be by calculating the burden constituted by the elderly, known as old dependency ratio, that can be obtained by dividing the percentage of population in the age group of 60 plus by that in the age group of 15-59, and by multiplying the quotient by 100. Calculated in this way, we can see on every person in the productive age group (15-59), in 1981 there were 12 dependent elderly people, 15 in 1991 and estimated to be doubled in another two decades. Here we should remember that the nature of burden that the elderly pose is different from others as it is more centered on the facilities for geriatric health care and housing. As we know that the sex ratio in India is adverse to the females, and this is also true in case of the elderly. But the degree in the number of males decline as they age, and within their respective genders, the percentage of the elderly females is higher than the same among the males.

Similarly another condition that places the Indian elderly in a relative position of weakness is that out of their total population, substantially higher number of them live in rural India. Like all other Indians, elderly in rural areas are less privileged than their urban counterparts. The incidence of age in rural India is caused by higher fertility rate, as well as due to rural to urban migration. The urban population in India has a substantial proportion of rural immigrants. More often than not the migrant adults, some times out of compulsion and many a times out of sheer bias leave their aged parents in their rural homes. We also witness mostly among the lower class people, the retired elderly return to their rural home communities from urban areas.

Marital status of the aged is another factor that weakens the position of the elderly within the greater society. Loss of married partners has different impact on men and women. On one hand, men suffer from loneliness and lack of support that they found readily available all their life. On the other hand, women are distressed by the inevitable destitution that they have to experience because of their perennial economic dependence on their male partners.

Illiteracy and lack of education are major hurdles that allow the society to marginalize the elderly in India. It will be frivolous to separately discuss about the educational background of the Indian elderly, when we know the educational background of the general population itself is far from satisfactory. In India, in the last couple of decades proactive steps have been taken to raise the educational level of the population. But the elderly of today, who have been brought up prior to these efforts never had these opportunities; therefore they lag very far behind the general population in case of educational attainments. In this fast changing world low educational attainments actually breeds vulnerability among the elderly as they are supposed to respond to these changes and for that they must be ready to assume new roles and responsibilities.

In India there is a general lack of understanding regarding the unique nature of health problems that an elderly has. Whereas the younger population suffer most from infectious diseases, the elderly suffer more from chronic ailments like problems of joints, cough, respiratory problems, blood pressure, heart diseases, urinary problems, piles and diabetes. This is the reason why our medical facilities do not have elder friendly provisions. Neither do we have sufficient number of trained personnel to take care of our elderly.

Social adjustment of the elderly in India to a great extent is dependent on their economic condition that can be gauged by their employment status or their income. Elderly not only are forced to survive with no income or diminished income, but also retirement from regular employment, which was a source of identity for them for a long period of time, has damaging impact on the personality of the elderly. Suddenly they are expected to do away with their identity and social status through which they used to relate themselves with the society. Economic reforms in last one decade have brought qualitative changes in the Indian economic scene, affecting the economic role of the aged remarkably. A major area of concern is rate of work participation in the formal sector of the elderly. Comparatively India being in the early stage of structural adjustment in the economy, we still see a relatively higher work participation rate among the elderly. But progressively there will be further erosion in the work participation rates of the elderly as already evident in urban India where the economy is relatively more organized than the rural areas. Again, the elderly who still have employment are mostly engaged in the informal sector, which is relatively less remunerative in nature. So in foreseeable future, predictably the elderly in India will remain in financial quagmire.

Changing Indian economic scenario has affected the institution of family by diminishing its capacity to take care of its elders. Economic compulsions force the young adults to pursue career independently that also frees them from the economic authority of the elders. Migration and establishment of separate household by the young adults, not only constricts the family circle of their elderly, on whom they could depend, but also compel them to fall back upon their own limited personal resources. The pattern of family in India, that we witness today, is either nucleated that off shoots to simple lineal joint family for sometime, which again reverses back to nuclear stage. In this emergent pattern of families, the elderly, living with their married children in the urban areas, face difficulty in adjusting to the interpersonal family ties. Also, changed lifestyle not only restricts the number of caregivers available for the elderly within the family, but even then it cannot be taken for granted that it will be possible for these members to take care of them.

As India urbanizes another aspect of concern that comes to the fore is the adjustment of the elderly to the urban lifestyle. Due to the shortage of living space, type of housing, lack of public amenities like foot paths, parks etc., the elderly are constantly reminded of their age, infirmities and limitations. Like all urban dwellers, the aged are consumed with the fear of violence and crime, more so because of the physical infirmities and traumatic consequences. Overall, these factors severely compromise the quality of life of the elderly in urban areas.
The biggest problem in today’s society is our unwillingness to confront explicitly the role of ourselves in the society, thus we do not articulate moral commitment. Through this act of omission, in case of the elderly, we have created hegemonic ideas and corrupting ideologies that have labeled the elderly as a vulnerable set of people who are burdensome for the society. Social construction of ‘old age’, in the words of Bytheway (1995:118) “… can be seen as a process of systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against us when we are considered old”. But such social construction is done by the powerful groups within the society who define what is normal, appropriate and acceptable, thus who should be included or excluded. But these dominant ideas with their own historical logic determine, explain and justify the activities of people. If, we the people of India, do not confront the biases against the elderly with determined efforts of intergenerational equity, then it is not far off when in order to rationalize population policies and for scientific improvement of our productive forces, we will start killing our elderly population as happened in the hands of the Nazi regime in Germany during the Second World War.

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