Thiruvananthapuram: Out of sight, out of mind — thus goes the adage. A sizeable section of Keralites, aged 65 and above, are fighting the fear of being forgotten.
Reason: the lockdown relaxation rules that came into effect on 8 June also brought with it stricter stay-at-home parameters for the senior citizens, banishing them from most of their regular haunts. And this proscribed list, clearly framed with their safety in mind, includes places of worship, shops, recreation centres — all of them places hitherto patronised by senior citizens.
While India, with a median age of 24, has no reason to worry for years to come, the narrative changes drastically when one looks at Kerala. Its high Human Development Indices, including high life expectancy and low birth ratio, make sure the state also shares the burden of an ageing population with the developed world.
Therefore, when the Kerala government decided to curtail the movement of all those aged above 65 years, the economy, already choked of spending avenues and resources, was set to suffer a further backlash.
The reason is quite simple. Kerala would now have about 17 per cent of its total population in the 65 plus age group and a good number of them would be in control of the sources of disposable income. With about 5 lakh state government pensioners and about 2.5 lakh central government pensioners, Kerala has around 6 lakh citizens in the 65-plus age group with proven income sources.
It is not as if the Kerala government with a bulk of its cabinet over 65 years of age is unaware of the problems posed by the decision to keep the seniors away from public spaces.
“We are aware of the practical issues that people above 65 have to face during the pandemic. It should not be seen as negative segregation but a positive effort to keep them safe from the deadly virus,” Dr T.M. Thomas Isaac, Kerala Finance Minister, told ThePrint. “This year we were planning to come out with some major initiatives for senior citizens. Keeping Kerala’s demographic profile in mind, we planned to make the seniors more visible.”
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The demographic with financial muscle
There are numerous senior citizens with income from agriculture, business, and a huge number is living off bank interest and other investments made after spending entire life abroad, especially the West Asian countries, and before coming home to spend their golden years in Kerala.
“According to the 2011 census, Kerala had 27.39 lakh people who were above 65 years old, 41.5 lakh above 60 years and 59.36 lakh above 55 years. The population which was 3.34 crore is projected to have grown to around 3.45 crore last year. We can only make an informed projection of those in the 65-plus age category now by factoring in the death rate of 6.6 per 1,000,” said Mohanachandran Nair, professor and head of the Demographic Studies Centre, University of Kerala.
“It would be safe to say Kerala would now have well over 55 lakh in this age bracket. Reason: Kerala’s death rate is way below that of the developed countries, which is around 10 (per 1,000), and that of India (around 8),” Nair added.
It is no coincidence that the developed world has kept 65 as the age barrier for people allowed to directly combat the dreaded pandemic, which is by and large the retirement age. But Kerala, with an unrealistically early retirement age of 56, simply cannot afford to ignore its army of pensioners. Just as it cannot wish away the fast swelling numbers of senior citizens as they wield considerable financial muscle.
S. Irudaya Rajan, Chair Professor, Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs research unit on international migration at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, told ThePrint that Kerala would now be having over 20 per cent of its near 35 million population in the 60 plus category.
“I would put it this way. Around one-sixth of Kerala’s population would be in the 65-plus age category while in the districts of Pathanamthitta and Kottayam, this would be closer to one-fifth. And I would say 30-40 per cent would be having their regular sources of income.”
Rajan added, “Many of them would be living with various illnesses but a good percentage of them are quite active and visible in public places. Even now, it is the youngsters who remain indoors and the elderly who got to the market to buy things. And places of worship will be near empty minus the elderly. A blanket ban is discriminatory.”
Issues of mental health
With the Covid-19 safety protocols constantly redefining the new normal, Kerala is one place that may initially struggle but soon comes to terms with strange paradoxes. Because, with those above 65 years of age forced to remain out of sight, Kerala is feeling the pinch more than any other state in India, as its demographic profile, along with many other human development indices, is more in line with the developed world, especially the Scandinavian countries.
According to figures mentioned by Irudaya Rajan, about 10-14 lakh elders with established sources of disposable income also happen to be in the 65 plus age group in Kerala. And by suddenly asking them to withdraw from all kinds of public appearances, Kerala now runs the risk of opening up cases of mental stress.
Thus, when many heads of Christian denominations proclaimed that they will not be interested in restarting regular church services by keeping out all children below 10 and elders above 65, they were mindful of this ‘worldly’ reality as it was gripped by the spiritual dimension. Arguably, it is till turning 10 that one takes the preliminary steps in the divine path and then returns to seek salvation in the mid-sixties. The ways of the faithful by and large follow this age pattern in all religions.
“There is no doubt whatsoever that this sudden disappearance from public spaces will cause considerable emotional distress to this age group. Sure, a blanket curtailment of their movement is the easy way out as they are vulnerable to illness. But there is no empirical proof to suggest that they are more prone than the younger ones,” pointed out Dr Roy Kallivayalil, Secretary-General, World Psychiatric Association, Geneva, and Head of Psychiatry, Pushpagiri Medical College, Thiruvalla.
“It is a real issue and we are aware of it. There was a proposal in one medical forum that Sundays could be kept open only to the elders but many practical difficulties cropped up,” he added. “We have to resolve this in an inclusive manner as there is no way to forecast how long these safety protocols will need to be followed.”
Surely, those familiar with the ground reality are aware of thousands of households with only the elderly in residence, as the younger ones are working either abroad or elsewhere in India. Though advanced in years, most of them are self-dependent until they become too infirm to walk, which normally does not happen till the mid-70s. And it is this active population that has suddenly been forced to become invisible.
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