Ejected from the house of his son and daughter-in-law, Brij Mohan Garg looks around the spartan surroundings of his state-subsidized retirement home in Delhi with a mixture of despair and disbelief.
“After doing so well in life, I find myself here,” said the 72-year-old retired government official, shaking his head and gesturing at the dirty upholstery covering a well-worn sofa in the home’s “visitors’ room.”
Garg’s predicament is in many ways a direct result of India’s rapid economic growth, which has brought enormous social change — including the gradual break-up of the traditional extended family.
For elderly people like Garg, the “joint” family, where parents, children and grandchildren all live under one roof, was once a dependable safety net of comfort and companionship in their old age.
However, rising costs, shrinking living spaces and increased job mobility mean the aged are increasingly left alone and forced to turn to some form of assisted living, the quality of which varies hugely depending on their means.
Latest census figures show that the average family size in India has dropped from seven members to five in the last 10 years.
“This reflects large-scale migration,” said Mathew Cherian, the head of the non-profit group, HelpAge India.
“Rural youngsters are migrating to urban areas for employment, and those in the cities are either moving to a bigger one or going abroad for better economic prospects, leaving their parents behind,” Cherian said.
The socio-economic shift in family structure comes at a time of equally rapid demographic change as India’s overall population ages.
In 2000, the number of Indians over 60 years of age stood at nearly 80 million, or roughly 8 percent of the population.
According to UN forecasts, that number will reach nearly 170 million by 2025 and 325 million — or 20 percent of the population — by 2050.
For those with modest incomes and no family support, their limited retirement options will include homes run by state-funded charities — similar to the one where Garg has spent the past five years.
The facilities are frugal: rows of small, dingy rooms with rickety beds, cramped cupboards and creaking ceiling fans. Some have sewing machines, donated by welfare groups.
Food and lodging is provided free of charge by the charity, which estimates its costs at about 5,000 rupees (US$100) a month per person and which relies on donations from wealthy businessmen and non-profit organizations.
“My son has visited me once in five years,” said Garg, who manages to find some comfort in living with other pensioners who have been similarly abandoned.
“At least I am not dependent on anybody and spend my time with other people who are like me and understand my pain,” he said.
At another charity old-age home nearby, Mariam Lyall, 85, bitterly recalls the events that saw her fulfilling life as a nurse in Mumbai reduced to an old-age of state dependency.
“I loved my job and lived with my nephew. But as age caught up with me, he started ill-treating me. He told me that I was a burden and that he couldn’t take care of me any longer,” she said.
“There is no respect for us here,” Lyall’s friend Angelina Lal said. “I don’t have any family. I have no choice but to rot in misery.”
The plight of the elderly left to fend for themselves has provided a potentially lucrative market opening for privately-run homes that provide high-end care at a cost.