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We can live without you!

A Message from The Elderly to the Young

It may seem sacrilegious in a country like India, recipe where children have always taken care of their elderly parents at home. But guess what? It’s no longer a given that Nani and Nana will have their own wing in the family bungalow, no rx an earshot away from all that surreptitious partying. Among those who can afford it, a growing number of seniors are opting for luxury developments where they can live on their own and do whatever they please, surreptitious or not. And here’s a news flash for all those children and grandchildren out there who think they’re indispensible: most of these old folks are perfectly happy living independently, thank you very much.

Call it ‘golden living’, literally.

I recently visited my mother in Dehradun and one of the hottest topics among her and her friends was the opening of a new ‘luxury senior living development’, and whether they should consider moving there.

To be clear, this wasn’t some sad ‘old age home’ type place you might imagine; but a swank campus spread out over 20 acres of hillside, designed to house 200 odd flats in 9 blocks (but you can only live there if you are over 60 years old). The brochure boasted of a 50,000-square-foot clubhouse with restaurants, cafes, all-weather swimming pool, cinema theatre, salon, etc. etc. An underground car park would connect to all blocks through a system of tunnels, with buggies on call to get you home clean and dry. Social and cultural activities were promised – trips to the hills, cookery classes and group meditations. And to top it all, a trusty ambulance would be on hand 24×7 in case one of those mountain walks proved too strenuous.

For me, the most interesting part was not that such places exist, but the reaction of my mother and her pals. They were all seized by the idea – as if the prospect of living with one’s children were some kind of prison sentence. In the said demographic, nobody was dismissing the concept.

Knowing my oldies (being ‘nearly’ one myself!), it seemed to me that this would almost certainly not have been the case a few years ago and got me thinking: ‘What’s changed?’

A bit of digging reveals that the idea of independent community living for the elderly is one whose time has either arrived or is close to doing so here in India.

Some numbers might help in understanding why: This country currently has around 100m people over the age of 60, yet only 30 odd such ‘senior living developments’ exist across the country (about the same number are in the planning phase). To be clear, I’m talking here specifically about the concept of blocks of flats available for sale only to senior citizens, which are ‘user friendly’ for that segment, but in most other ways do not differ from any other types of residential developments – and not old age homes or nursing homes. This 100m compares with about 50m people in the same demographic in America. Yet there are over 2,000 such developments there, with more than half a million people living in them. Even taking into account the fact that income levels are a lot lower in India, and it’s difficult to make these places at low cost, it would still seem that a considerable ‘gap’, or as some might call it, ‘business opportunity’ exists.

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While the concept of elderly people living alone is relatively unusual in India (Helpage India estimates that only 9% of ‘seniors’ in the top 9 cities of India lived alone in 2011. The rest lived with family), things are changing and changing fast. The educated and relatively prosperous middle class is growing (the demographic of this article, though of course it must be mentioned that the majority of our nation’s elderly remain poor), western values are replacing traditional Indian ones (which also has a consequent effect on social stigmas), nuclear families are becoming the norm, the younger generation is strapped for time and many within it are earning their livings abroad. Furthermore, many retirees increasingly want to remain independent. They also have more money to spend than in the past.

Enter said projects, which provide that independence. They also offer security (a real concern for the elderly, especially those living alone), a clean and well cared for environment, the company of like-minded people and medical help on hand. And they remove the hassles of employing staff and maintaining a home. One can see the attraction.

In India, a handful of promoters have been developing these projects for around a decade. So far, they have focused on the larger cities and ‘retirement havens’ – such as Goa. But now they are broadening their reach. And new players, such as those behind the Dehradun project, are entering the fray.

Here in Goa there are 3 ‘luxury senior living developments’ already on the ground and another 3 under way. A brief visit to one of them seems to confirm that interest levels are high. The ‘senior living’ block of flats in a large multi-building apartment complex in Goa Velha was the first among all the blocks in the complex to be ‘sold out’.

But the old idiom, ‘buyer beware’ seems to be the order of the day. Much of the criticism that my mother’s friends had of the Dehradun development appears justified. Among these was aggressive marketing (perhaps rather cleverly, the promoters had hired ex-bankers as salespeople, who joined ready-armed with contact lists of those who could likely afford to buy flats in the development), very few penalties for poor service provision and high prices for said services. It’s not just that the flats in Dehradun range from Rs 1.3 cr to Rs 8 cr. A couple residing in a 2-bedroom flat there would additionally be required to pay as much as Rs 68,000 a month which would only cover the cost of security, maintenance, a meal a day each, cleaning and primary healthcare. Ouch!).

So for some of us, it seems, our golden years may prove pretty ‘golden’ for others, too.