A Shrinking Table
During my childhood, we had a rather strict rule about having dinner together as a family. My grandparents were close to my father, and he to them. The cacophony of cross-conversations between grandparents, parents, cousins bore testimony to filial responsibility that had been deeply internalised by every generation.
For a society in the throes of turbulent change, however, even the most sacred of relationships has come under pressure. The share of the elderly in India living alone or only with a spouse increased from 9 per cent in 1992 to 19 per cent in 2006. The modernising forces of demographic change, growth-induced geographic mobility and a sense of individualism, have transformed society within a span of one generation.
First, growing life expectancy and lower fertility rates mean an increasing share of elderly in the population, putting additional pressure on a smaller number of children. Since 1991, the number of households has grown faster than the population. Nuclear families now constitute 70 per cent of all households.
Second, better economic opportunities mean that children are leaving home earlier than they used to, migrating not to the neighbouring town, but across states and countries. According to the 2017 Economic Survey, 90 lakh people, on average, migrated between Indian states for either work or education each year between 2011 and 2016. Urban living is predominantly nuclear, and only 8.3 per cent of the urban elderly live in joint families.
Third, and perhaps most important, direct or indirect exposure to the Western way of life has given this generation an alternative idea of family responsibility and how to organise care. The share of adult children who said that caring for their elderly parents was their duty fell from 91 per cent in 1984 to 51 per cent in 2001.
The Government of India in 2007 enacted the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, which made it a legal obligation for children to provide maintenance to parents in the form of a monthly allowance. In 2018, the revised Act seeks to increase the jail term for negligent children, broaden responsibility beyond biological children and grandchildren and expand the definition of maintenance to include safety and security. This law will ultimately safeguard the rights of those elderly who have seen abuse and help them pursue legal action.
But when financial needs are met, and social ones remain, the bite of law is limited. Isolation and loneliness among the elderly is rising. Nearly half the elderly felt sad and neglected, 36 per cent felt they were a burden to the family. One in every five people will be above the age of 60 by 2050. As the trends of smaller families and reductions in the cost of mobility continue, it is our values that will determine what the future looks like.
For both my grandparents and me, dinner together grew to be a meaningful exchange of lives lived in very different times — my displays of what technology could do, their stories about what the Partition meant. But in the face of change, our generation will face a unique problem in how it approaches the filial contract.
On one hand, sociologists have predicted the rise of modified extended families to replace joint families. This hybrid structure of nuclear families enmeshed in large kinship networks is characterised by close familial bonds despite geographic distance — manifested in frequent visits to parents, and participation in events such as births, marriages and festivals.
An alternative future is one where social support comes from other elderly. Facing greater competitive and economic pressures, young Indians may create a tipping point where old-age homes become the norm, and there is no longer any stigma or guilt associated with them. In Kerala, there has been a 69 per cent increase in the residents of old age homes in 2011-15.
For a society caught between greater economic opportunities and individual freedoms on one hand and traditional values and moral responsibilities on the other, finding a balance is not straightforward. With the passage of time, the values that were once internalised at the dining table might become too distant a memory to check the opportunities and freedoms of the day.