In Calcutta and its suburbs, there have been 16 cases in the last three months of elderly citizens living alone and found dead, sometimes by violent means, in their homes. But a recent report shows that the helplessness of elderly people is a countrywide problem and, although from this report, it appears to be an urban phenomenon, a survey of how the elderly fare in villages might come up with equally distressing findings. The HelpAge report reveals that the abuse of the elderly is growing in Indian cities; in Bangalore, for instance, there has been a 75 per cent increase from 2013 to 2014. The son and daughter-in-law remain the biggest perpetrators, with daughters and sons-in-law coming up close. And the problem is not confined to the underprivileged. The disempowerment of the elderly cannot be countered with affluence. The geographical mobility of younger, professionally active citizens, the proliferation of their existential choices, which is the most upbeat consequence of globalized, liberalized and socially-networked supermodernity, does exclude a rising number of vulnerable people from its worldwide embrace.
It is a problem that has to be addressed by both the State and civil society through a combination of law, welfare (especially medical and paramedical infrastructure), sensitive policing and other civic services, on the one hand, and a series of ongoing practical yet humane adjustments and improvisations in everyday private life, feeling and thinking, on the other. This will have to go beyond the usual laments on the decline of family values, disinstegration of the extended family or the selfishness of nuclear units. For people who choose to, or find themselves having to, live alone, the dread and stigma of ‘loneliness’, or the seeking of a solution in the traditional family, will have to be questioned. Human beings can live with one another in many different arrangements, compelled by a range of imperatives — from basic survival to unusual notions of friendship, cohabitation or collective living. When the whole world is changing in the way it thinks, feels, moves, works and communicates, then ways of being mutually supportive in people’s living arrangements are likely to be transformed radically as well. Governments, institutions, families and individuals will have to think through this changing reality in a practical, principled, and possibly unconventional, manner.