Aging in India: Not the same old story

NEW DELHI, India — When 72-year-old Dr. Ram Das Agrawal decided he was ready to give up his Chhattisgarh medical practice a few years ago, he was eager to find a community where he could live out his remaining years in peace, without worrying about health care, safety, or the daily hassles of maintaining a home in India.

Shortly after his daughter married and moved to Alwar, Rajasthan, she helped her father find the solution. Among the first real estate complexes of its kind in India, Ashiana's Utsav at Bhiwadi is a 640-unit community for senior citizens where Agrawal not only enjoys the security of corporate-managed maintenance, 24-hour medical care on call and similar benefits, but also plays in table tennis tournaments and sings with a music club.

“It's beyond what I imagined,” Agrawal said. “I'm happy.”

India's economic boom is gathering momentum, like a snowball rolling downhill. But the country's strivers are fighting harder than ever for a piece of the pie — working longer hours, migrating to new cities or emigrating to richer lands. Today fewer than 40 percent of Indians live in so-called “joint families,” traditional arrangements where brothers shared the family home with their parents even after they'd married and had families of their own, according to real estate consultancy Jones LaSalle Meghraj.

To compensate, the rising middle class is turning to a new real estate phenomenon: Florida-style retirement communities.

“Their children have gone abroad or to other cities for jobs, and the parents are all alone,” said Santosh Dhamdhere, marketing manager at Atashri, a retirement community in Pune, Maharashtra. “Initially, when we started we were skeptical and had a low response. But now it is selling like hotcakes. There is a big market that is untapped.”

Untapped, and growing. It's true that India is one of the youngest countries in the world, and getting younger. By 2020, the average age of an Indian will be 29 years, compared to 37 for China and 48 for Japan. But thanks to higher life expectancy, India's elderly population is growing rapidly, too. The current elderly population of about 81 million people will nearly double to 150 million by 2020, with even more rapid growth in the numbers of people more than 80 years old, according to Help Age India, a non-profit organization that works on elderly-related issues.

To meet the projected demand, real estate developments for older people are mushrooming on the outskirts of cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Pune and Kochi. Paranjape Construction's Atashri Foundation has completed four retirement communities and has a fifth nearing completion around Pune, for example, and has typically sold all 100-200 units within a month of a new project launch.

Ashiana Housing has retirement resorts in Bhiwadi, Jaipur and Pune, with around 1400 one-, two- and three-bedroom units in total. Similarly, the Dignity Foundation operates a 25-acre project “for active and productive living for senior citizens” 90 kilometers from Mumbai (Bombay), while Riverdale Retirement Resort-home, in Kochi, Kerala, among others, operates an American-style assisted living facility.

“If you look at the top-seven cities in the country and the current working stage, on that basis, if you convert that into square footage for retired couples, I wouldn't be surprised if demand exceeds 5 to 6 million square feet,” said Sanjay Dutt, chief executive, business, at Jones LaSalle Meghraj.

A gleaming forest of golden-colored condominiums, Utsav at Bhiwadi, where Dr. Agrawal lives, offers myriad services that are tailor-made for older Indians who might not otherwise be comfortable living alone.

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.