Today, a growing number of cosmopolitan middle-class Indians are moving to senior residences. These old age homes reflect Indian culture and customs, especially female dependence on male kin. A recent study reveals that this new trend is leading to growth opportunities for some women.
The rise of senior residences is most noticeable among an elite minority of world-travelling, English-speaking persons in Kolkata, New Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai. The residences are fee-based. These residences are notably absent in rural and urban poor communities, where the majority of people live.
Dr. Sarah Lamb, a professor of anthropology at Brandeis University (Waltham, Massachusetts) and author of White Saris and Sweet Mangoes, conducted the study. She focused on old age homes in and around Kolkata. The study is published in the spring edition (2007) of the International Journal of Sociology of the Family.
Traditionally, adult children live with and care for aging parents in the multi-generational Indian family. However, in practice, it is primarily sons and daughters-in-law who shoulder the responsibility, according to the author. In fact, one requirement of a good
daughter-in-law is to offer "seva", which is respectful care and service to a husband’s parents.
But life in India is changing. The adult children of many middle-class families are living and working abroad. Middle-class young women today are educated, older when they marry and less likely to want to live with their husband’s parents. According to the author, these middle-class families are strapped for time, interested in material goods, and less wedded to traditional rules and customs.
Old age homes, Indian style
Not surprisingly then, for the first time many middle-class Indians are turning to non-family-based eldercare institutions to care for their parents.
Catering services for seniors have mushroomed in big cities in India. The Agewell Foundation and Your Man in India, among others, offer a wide array of services. These include friendly visits, escorts to weddings and doctor’s appointments and help filling out tax forms.
Directors of new senior residences are eager to foster Indian values and customs. Residents are given early morning tea in bed. According to the author, residents receive hair massages and bath water is warmed and delivered to their rooms.
Lamb interviewed 100 residents (75 females and 25 males) about their life stories, daily routines, hopes and regrets. Men who moved to old age homes made the decision to do so themselves. Many of the women interviewed also played a significant role in making the decision, but others had absolutely no control over the process. According to the author, about 35 per cent of women interviewed were "placed" in homes against their wills by sons (or nephews, grandsons, brothers).
Pursuing new opportunities
But others (about 40 per cent) are opting for the new trend. These women are free of household duties for the first time in their lives. These are mostly widows, receiving their share of their deceased husband’s pensions or working women with their own pensions. According to the author, some have never married, others are married and childless or had only daughters.
As they see it, senior residences offer a new form of the traditional seva.
"I can hold my head up high and ask for what I need," said Inu Ghost, a never-married retired schoolteacher. "They are here to serve me. I am paying for this service and so I ask whatever I want with dignity."
Mina-di added, "We all are having a very good time together." She is among a group of six women in one home who play cards every afternoon at 5 p.m. The winner takes the others out for espresso at the neighbouring coffee shop.
According to the author, when Renuka Biswas’domineering husband died, she told her son she wanted to go to a senior residence. Today, she lives with five other women dormitory-style. Renuka-di, 84, is immensely proud of her pension, which she refers to as her "salary." She buys sweets for herself and her roommates, and gives money to the Ashram Mother to purchase extra large pieces of fish for her. Renuka-di travels several times a year to visit family, including her son.