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Aging in India: Not the same old story

Demise of India's joint family system sparks boom in Florida-style retirement communities.

A single-gated community, the complex is more stringent about security than ordinary real estate developments — instituting a closed-circuit TV system, background checks for house maids and an internal postal system to eliminate the usual incessant to-and-fro of private couriers, for instance. Every flat has emergency call buttons to summon help, and there's a nurse on the site 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

And all the normal residential amenities — vegetable vendors, grocer, gardener, and so forth — are vetted and provided by Ashiana. The atmosphere is a lot like a college, with a student-union-like community center that boasts a theater, game room and restaurant, and an activities director organizes a series of events every month to encourage residents to build friendships and avoid feeling isolated.

“We've addressed all the fears of senior citizens,” said A. Gonogopadhyay. Ashiana Housing's corporate vice president, he was a key driving force in pioneering the retirement community concept, and now he's a resident. “Once you know you have that support,” he said, “you get extra vigor.”

Sadly, only a handful can afford this kind of care. Units at Ashiana's Bhiwadi complex range in price from around $40,000 to $65,000, for example, making them affordable for the upper middle class but out of reach for most Indians.

At the same time, new wealth has eroded the foundations of traditional values. Once the source of wisdom, child care, and financial support, many in India's older generation, who struggled to earn in a month what today's salaried class makes in a day, are viewed as obsolete. For the poor, health care for the aged is unavailable in most places, and with only two medical colleges across the entire country teaching geriatric care, that's unlikely to change soon. Worse still, only about 10 percent of the population has any form of pension, while another 12 million older people from below-poverty-line families get a stipend of about $5 a month.

“In India, old people have to work till they die,” said Mathew Cherian, Help Age India's chief executive.

Ageing isn't easy for the middle class, either. With the adoption of American-style retirement communities and nursing homes, Indian elders, and their children, have begun to confront some American-style problems. Retirees don't always find the paradise of card games, bingo, and like-minded company that their children imagine for them in retirement communities. Children living abroad feel guilty that they don't call and visit often enough, and their sequestered parents feel deserted and isolated.

“There's a lot of bitterness,” said Help Age India's Cherian.

“Feelings of isolation are always an issue as age advances, but it's a question of your own attitude also,” said Agrawal, who has clearly applied the lessons he learned treating patients to his own life.