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No Country for Old Women?

New America Media, News Feature, Sandip Roy Posted: Feb 27, 2010

Editors Note: This story is part of a series by NAM editor Sandip Roy. The reporting was supported by a fellowship from the South Asian Journalists Association.

She has become the quintessential symbol of Indian democracy in action: the wizened but plucky old women, often with Coke-bottle glasses, being carried to the polling booth, appearing unfailingly each election day.

But if you walk into an old age home in India you see another face of older women.

An elderly woman in the Sancta Maria Old Age Home
in Southwestern India, Ph: Bishan Samaddar
Swarnamma is 70 years old. She sits on a bed in the Sancta Maria old age home in Trivandrum, near the southern tip of India. She has partial paralysis and her son cannot take care of her any more. She says she cannot do much, but she helps chop vegetables. She goes to the church to pray. She used to be a Hindu but has a garlanded picture of Jesus hanging near her bed on the blue-washed wall.

I believe in both [religions], she says with a shy smile. The Sancta Maria Old Age home where she lives is run by nuns. Without them Swarnamma would be on the streets.

Across the country in New Delhi, Rita Sikand lives in a pay-for-stay home for seniors. Its a much more plush affair than the Sancta Maria Old Age Home. Sikand has her own suite. She sleeps on a bed in her flip flops, her collection of teddy bears neatly arranged next to her pillows. The dining table is laid out with a tea set the cups with dainty floral patterns. But at 89 with a bad back, Sikand does not cook or entertain much any more.

She wanted an apartment, so we have given her this place so she still has an illusion that she is living in an apartment, says Avtar Pennathur, who runs the home Sikand lives in. Pennathurs clients come from the upper crust of Indian society. Sikands late husband was a prominent industrialist. Pennathur, who studied psychology in the U.S. in the 1950s, says she converted her house into a home for seniors.

There are stories sometimes where big bureaucrats have put their mother in the outhouse, says Pennathur. That is not acceptable.

But Pennathurs pay-for-stay home has only 17 rooms. There are 30 million women over 65 in India today, and 22 million women are widows. Two out of three older women in India are dependent on others for food, clothing and shelter. Almost half have no property in their own name. The feminization of ageing in India has become the buzzword in gerontological circles. 

Old Women Public Face of Aging

The discarded old woman looms large over any discussion of aging in India. In the 1955 classic film Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray movingly documented the story of Indir-thakurun, the widow in the threadbare white sari, living off scraps of sympathy from distant relatives. You will find many Indir-thakuruns nowadays, says Indrani Chakravarty, who runs the Calcutta Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology. But it also means family members under extreme poverty do feed the senior citizen. They abuse them but at the same time feed them.

The public face of aging in India has become the old woman, her white sari slipping off her wrinkled shoulders. As a result, many of the services provided by non-governmental organizations have targeted older women, even though in reality, according to the 2007 estimates, there are only 3 million fewer men over age 65 in India. But there are few options for older men.

When Naba Nir (New Nest) started in 1970s Calcutta it provided shelter exclusively to older women.
Aloka Mitra, who started the home and still runs it today, says the need was always clear. We found so many cases of women, literally left on the street. There were also women who were not married, or who got married and had no children, or had only girl children, she says.

Rita Sikand lives in a pay-for-stay home for seniors
in Dehli, Ph: Bishan Samaddar
Older Indians traditionally do not want to go live with their daughters. When Naba Nir started, the shelter did not accept women who had sons. At that time we did not realize there may have been sons, but the sons did not take care of the mothers, says Mitra. Women are out on the streets because sons have literally thrown her out.

Over time Naba Nir started accepting women who had sons. Soon Mitra said an older man approached her at a meeting. He told me do you think only women are aging, recalls Mitra. He said we are more helpless than women because at least you women can cook yourself a meal. Many of us cant even boil an egg.

Now Naba Nir houses men as well as women in one of its facilities.

As the women settle down to watch television at Naba Nir, it feels a little bit like a hostel for working women. The women jostle for space, sometimes complain about the noise, and settle down next to each other to watch a serial. They are welcome to go into the kitchen and poke their noses [in] and not shout at the cook if at all possible, jokes Mitra. They do become sisterly.

Mitra remembers that the first time one of the old ladies died she was nervous about how the others would react. But she went to the home and found the dead woman had been laid out in her best silk sari. They ground sandalwood paste, decorated her with flowers, burned incense. They sang songs and gave her a lovely farewell, says Mitra. Next day they came to me and said we are quite willing to die if you will give us that kind of a send off.

Sisterhood of Widows

But Ruprekha Chowdhury, who has been studying the issue of aging in Bengal, says behind this sisterhood of gray hairs, there is still a core of deep pain. Most of these women had spent their lives providing for others as daughters, wives, mothers and mothers-in-laws. They were the ones who fed everyone and then ate at 2:30, says Chowdhury. Now it is painful to have to push each other to stand ahead in line to get food.

Chowdhury says many of them adjust to the old age home but feel they have lost their sense of self. Even as social activists decry the treatment of widows, she says some of these old women enforce the stringent rules of widowhood with fierce rigor.

She remembers an ailing elderly couple at a private old age home. When the man eventually died, the other old ladies gathered around the widow, showering her with sympathy. But there was also the sense, says Chowdhury, that now she is one of us. When it came time to do the funeral, the old woman was forced to go through all the rituals even though she was so ill she could barely sit up. I vividly recall her sitting on the armchair, her head lolling, says Chowdhury. Surrounded by this garland of widows she was inducted into widowhood.

The social expectations of the role of women follow these widows cruelly into their old age. There is a strong sense of self denial, says Mala Kapur Shankardass, a Delhi-based gerontologist. Widowhood was about shunning. So the colors you wear try to portray a sober resigned subdued kind of thing.
For her, the denial is a hidden form of abuse that never gets talked about. At the old age homes, the women have few pictures. Either there are old photographs of family members or pictures of gods and goddesses cut from calendars.

One old lady said what should I have instead, pictures of [Bollywood star] Shah Rukh Khan, remembers researcher Chowdhury. The old lady said at least the old age home provided her with two meals a day as long as she observed expected social norms. She was afraid she might risk her room and food if she put up a poster of a movie star instead of religious imagery.

Age of the Daughter-in-law

But Sarah Lamb, who studied aging in the villages of Bengal for her book White Saris and Sweet Mangoes, says she has also seen older women, who felt they were freed from some of the strictures of society by old age. They were regarded as less sexual, says Lamb. In the U.S. that would be a negative thing, but in the Indian village that was positive. They could go out freely publicly, they would go watch plays. She even met an old woman who went around the village with her breasts bared.

But most older women in India dont see old age as having freed them.

Lalitha comes to Sandhya Kiran, a senior day care center in Bangalore every day. She has worked in a factory since 1973. Now she stitches blouses and makes bouquets for a pittance, but is afraid her legs are giving out on her.

Lalitha complains that her son and daughter-in-law do not care for her. They leave her at home at night with no money and an empty kitchen. For them, she is just an extra mouth to feed. Why are you not going to an ashram [hermitage] they tell me, she says.

Many Indians think of [aging] in terms of the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship, says Sarah Lamb. There is no evidence that there ever was a golden age of happy extended families where old matriarchs were honored and every daughter-in-law dutifully massaged her mother-in-laws feet. But Lamb says the women in the villages are singing a new song at the weddings.

Mother-in-law, gone, gone is your rule,
The age of the daughter-in-law has come.
The mother-in-law spreads a bed,
The daughter-in-law lies down.
Mother-in-law, please massage my feet. 

The age of the daughter-in-law has come. 

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