Why the Middle Class Aged choose to Move from Family to Old-age Homes?

Sinjini Roy

Abstract Two Old Age Homes in Kolkata
Introduction Interpretation of the field data and conclusion


Rationalization of family size, dispersal of younger members, career orientation, hedonism based on material consumption, decision of not marrying are some of the trends that symbolize the middle class life in cities and metropolises in recent time. By the time the aged men and women retire from active professional life they find themselves alone and start facing the consequences of ‘rationalization of life’, which is at the same time their own and social creation. The death of one of the spouses and ailments of different kinds make them dependent on the professional service providers, and they have to live with a great deal of uncertainties, dependence and insecurities. Many of the middle class aged, having solid economic foundation are seen moving to old-age homes (Homes), which have mushroomed in recent years, as a solution to the crisis of their own creation. The stigma that was conventionally attached to the Homes is on the wane because of the professional approach of the management and upgradation of the facilities to match the expectations of the middle class urbanites. Three seminal findings of the paper are (a) the ill-treatment of the aged by the younger members of the family is not at all the main reason behind their movement to old-age homes, and (b) the movement to the Homes does not impact negatively upon the relationships between the aged and their family members, and (c) the desire to live a life of freedom and dignity take the aged to the Homes.

Keywords: rationalization of family size, calculative rationalism, dispersal of family members, social resilience.

1. Introduction

This paper explores the reasons behind the movement of urban middle class aged people (both women and men) from their own family/house to the old age homes (Homes, henceforth). Ideally, middle class families would have held the aged bound in love and care at the late stage of their life when they needed the support and care of the near and dear ones the most. But the urban family, as an institution, is going through a serious crisis, which is making a dent into its ability to extend relational and emotional support to the aged. The popular perception is that the aged are the victims of cruelty of the ‘rationalized’, self-centred members of the younger generation who suffer from the breakdown of the moral order and lack ‘pity’ (empathy) or a sense of responsibility towards their parents. In reality, however, the problem is much more complex and hence it requires serious anthropological/sociological examination. The issues that have been addressed in this paper, but not in this order, are (a) the degree of calculative rationalism that has crept into the family and kinship relations in the urban-industrial context, (b) the extent to which the family system can hold the aged people together in the household system, rapped in the warmth of physical proximity, love and care, and, most importantly, (c) the factors that prompt the aged members leave their own house and family and take refuge in the old age home. I have examined these questions in the light of the information that I have gathered studying the aged living in two Homes in southern parts of Kolkata.

2. Two Old Age Homes in Kolkata

The study has been done between November 2014 and March 2015 in two phases. In the first phase, I have done a quick survey with the help of a structured questionnaire on 56 inhabitants in two Homes in Kolkata, namely Mukto Bihango (located in Natapara, South 24 Paraganas) and Rabindra Niketan (in Bansdroni area of south Kolkata), and in the second phase I have done in-depth case study of 32 informants selected from amongst the ones covered in the survey. The fieldwork has been a part of my doctoral research on the topic ‘Life of the Middle class Aged in Kolkata Metropolis’ and the present paper is a by-product of my study on the life of the aged. While the survey-data help understand the socio-economic background of the aged, the case studies help draw an insight into the micro social processes which they go through in the family locale. Through case studies, I have tried to draw autobiographical sketches of the aged, which they had drawn reflecting on their family life.

Urban middle class has been chosen as the locale of the study because this class is widely taken as enlightened, educated and the ‘vanguard’ of social change; it is in this class that Weberian rationalism is perceived to be evident (Weber 1968; Bendix, 1951; Simmel, 1903). The informants were all economically self-reliant and had served in high positions as teachers, bankers, government officials, actors on stage and on screen; many being politically active and sensitive, capable of reflecting on life and family relations and social issues. It is in this class that the chances of social mobility and resultant spatial mobility are high, which might have had some serious implications on family relations. In documenting information (mostly qualitative) and writing the ‘text’ I have followed the biographical/phenomenological method, where the respondents have been allowed to tell the story of their life and their versions have been presented in descriptive style without any analytical input or factual distortion.

2.1 The social background of the inmates

In Mukto Bihango there were 17 residents of whom 12 were women and five men. Rabindra Niketan had 42 boarders of whom 32 were women, four men. Interestingly there were three couples in Rabinda Niketan. To put it in a different way, out of a total of 59 home boarders 44 (74.58 per cent) were women. The survey was conducted on 56 respondents, covering both the Homes, of whom 46 were women and 10 were men. Thus, in the survey population the women constitute 82.14 per cent of the total number of aged covered,and in the total population and in the sample population (chosen randomly) the women outnumber the men, which is indicative of greater vulnerability of the women in the family, and hence their chances of taking refuge in Homes is far greater.

Out of 56 respondents 34 were living in the Homes for less than five years, 12 for more than five years but less than 10 years and the remaining 10 respondents had completed 10 years of their stay in old age home. This data clearly indicate that the movement of the aged into the Homes is growing in recent years.

In terms of age the respondents can be classified into three categories. In the first category there are 11 respondents aged between 60 and 70 years. In the second category there are 32 respondents aged between 71 and 80 years. The remaining 13 respondents, aged more than 80, fall in the third category.

Before moving to the Home, 21 respondents were living in their own house, 17 respondents had their own flats, four respondents were in their daughter’s or relative’s place, 13 were living in rented house and one respondent was living in a hostel. Thus, 38 out of 56 respondents (nearly 68 per cent) had their own house or apartment where they had spent a considerable period of their life with family members. The boarders in the homes predominantly represent the urban middle class, who are educated, mostly had white collar jobs, had inherited property and had children well settled in life. The widows now own the property, money or pension left behind by their deceased husbands. They mostly lived in their life in their own house/flat and had a good quality of life full of freedom and dignity. In Homes now they pay between Rs. 6,000 to Rs. 15,000 (depending on the facilities, size of the room) each month, which they can well afford. Those who did not have their own source of earning depend on their children or close relations who live in the city or in a faraway place.

The social perceptions, the pressure of tradition, the stigma attached to living in the Homes, the micro situation in the family together create individual perceptions, a world of feelings, which determine how the aged members would feel about their movement to Homes. Being asked how they felt while leaving their own house for the Home 28 of the respondents said they felt very bad and had problems in accepting Home life. Significantly, 26 of the respondents have said they were mentally prepared for this eventuality and they did not feel that bad while shifting to the Homes. All the home inmates were having a difficult time in their house/family and they took their movement to the Homes as a solution. All agreed that they took the decision after a long course of introspection and discussion with close ones and as the last resort.

The aged have left their own house/ flat voluntarily and it was their own decision to spend the rest of the life in old age home. The specific problems in the family/house and the level of mental preparedness evoked differential feelings while leaving their house for good. Nine among the 56 respondents said that initially they felt bad but after spending months in the Home they started liking the place. Most of the Home-inmates have developed their friendship circles and adjusted well with the life there. Even if they have grudge over the facilities in the Home they do not complain much since they know that they are left with no better option.

One crucial sociological question to probe is whether family and kinship support system break down completely as the aged move to the Homes. The information that has been gathered suggests the contrary, that is the relations do continue to work even after the shift. Out of 56 respondents, 28 (i.e., 50 per cent) informed that their children and relatives used to come and visit them frequently (once or twice a month), 17 (30 per cent) informed that their children and relatives used to visit them once in every two-four months while nine (16 per cent) respondents said that their relatives and children visited them once or twice a year; only two of the respondents said that they had no contact either with their children or relatives. In other words, 96 per cent of the Home boarders maintain contacts with their close kin and family members. Thus, the shift to the Homes does not mean in any way the end of family and kinship care system. The children and relatives of the aged try to maintain some form of relation with them and extend some kind of support (material or in terms of care). Placing them in a scale it can be seen that at one end, in most of the cases, the relation is very cordial and informal while at the other end there are cases (very few in number) where there is no relation or faint relation. Thus, most of the respondents maintain some kind of relation with their family members and close kin although the degree of emotive involvement varies from case to case depending on the micro family situations.

2.2 The Reasons for movement from Family/House to Old-age Homes

To leave the house and the family, which have been their won for so many years, for the Home is perhaps the most difficult and painful decision the aged take in their life. The dilemmas, agony and pain they go through are difficult to capture in a sociological language; what is documented is only a surface level understanding of the world of peoples’ feelings and sufferings. Analysing the survey data on 56 Home inmates a number of factors are found to have prompted the aged to shift to the Home when all their efforts to save their family and live in the warm company of their near and dear ones came to a close. Generally, the unmarried old men, who have no one in the family to fall back upon, widows and widowers with children living abroad, childless widow or widower, unmarried women, woman deserted by her husband, man who is mentally off balanced yet no one to care for, and men and women with many other irresolvable problems in the family take refuge in the old age homes. Neglect and maltreatment at the hands of the son and daughter-in-law can also lead the aged to take shelter in the Home for a life of dignity but this is not the most powerful reason. The old-age homes, which have come up in large number in the urban and sub-urban areas in recent decades, following the growing crises in the family, offer a care system and a sense of security and most importantly a form of companionship (and relational warmth) to the aged. Although they essentially work on business principles (with profit motive) and maintain some professional ethics are largely seen by the aged as a sort of solution to their ‘family crises’.

Table 1 below would show that out of 56 respondents there are 20 (nearly 36 per cent) unmarried aged, most of whom being women, who have shifted to old age home because they wanted to live independently away from their siblings, and in an ambience of care and security. There are 22 widows/widowers (39 per cent) among the respondents who have come to the old age home because their life had become difficult after the death of their spouses (in most cases husband) and were tired of fighting isolation, loneliness and everyday life inconveniences. There are three aged couples who have come to the Home because of premature death of their only child, because of space crunch at a point in the developmental cycle of the household, and also in search of a life of freedom. There are six childless widows who have come to the Home as they had no one to look after them. There is only one case where the aged woman has come to the Home after being deserted by her husband in her old age. Finally, there are three cases where the aged people moved to the Home because they were finding it difficult adjusting and living with their children. It is not that they had serious fight with their children; it is just that the aged people could not adjust with the lifestyle of their children and wanted to grant them freedom to live the life of their own. In the following section it is elaborated, with the help of case studies, as to how various factors contribute to the flight of the aged to the Homes

Table 1: Distribution of the aged by reasons for their movement from family/house to old-age home

Reasons No. of respondents
The unmarried aged move to old age home because they want to live independently in the of care and security of the Home and do not want to be ‘burdens’ on their siblings 20
The death of souse prompting the widows/widowers to move to the Home as they found loneliness unbearable and life unmanageable; the support system of the Home also attracted them 23
The aged couples coming to the Home because of the premature death of their only child, or because of space crunch in the house, or because they did not want to depend on their children 03
Childless widows who do not have any body to look after them 06
Aged woman whose husband has deserted her 01
The aged people who were not feeling comfortable living with their children because of strained relations and neglect 03
Total 56

Source: Field data

2.2.1 The unmarried people who have come to the old age home

The fact that 20 (nearly 36 per cent of the total) respondents (only five of them being men) are unmarried is noteworthy since it points to a trend in the urban middle class. In the absence of a family of their own they had to move to Homes as insecurity and loneliness grew with growing age. Some of them were living with their siblings before their shift. The siblings’ children grew up and got married adding members to the household. This created space problem in the house and the newly-wed couples started having problem regarding their privacy. The aged unmarried men and women also did not want to be ‘burden’ in the family of their siblings. As a solution the aged moved to the Home. It is like a phase in the developmental cycle in the household, which leads to dispersal of family members. Mr. D. Ghosh (78) Hindu Kayastha came to Mukto Bihango in 2013. As freelance photographer Mr. Ghosh had worked with many veteran actors in Bollywood and Tollywood. He had his own studio at Tollygunj. In his late fifties he stopped working in his studio and sold it out. He lived with his brother’s family for many years. In early 2014 his brother’s only son got married and he brought his wife home. There were not many rooms in the house to accommodate all the members and grant privacy to the newly-wed couple. Mr. Ghosh was feeling uneasy in front his nephew’s wife and decided to move to the present Home. His brother and other members of the family supported this move. Mr. Ghosh is having a quiet and freer life at Mukto Bihango.

The unmarried aged people who were doing jobs lived their life independently. In their active life they did not care much for support from family members. But as they value self respect most, in the post-retirement life they do not want to be dependent on others and do not prefer living with relatives. They want to live their life the way they wish and do not like a situation that makes them answerable to someone. However, with growing age their health deteriorates and many ailments afflict them, and they desperately need somebody to take care of them. Many prefer staying in their house hiring professional service providers (Roy, 2014, 2015) but many decide to shift to the Home thinking that they would get the necessary security and care and would live a life of their own choice. The old-age homes, which follow certain professional ethics, have a crisis management system. Miss S. Chakroborty, (73) a Hindu Brahmin, has been living in Rabindra Niketan since 2001. She worked as a nurse in government hospitals and lived in hospital quarters all her life. Although her siblings and relatives from her father’s as well as her mother’s side live in and around Kolkata, she decided not to live with any of them. She was unmarried and had no liabilities and did not want to be a burden to her siblings. In Mukto Bihango Miss Chakraorty has been enjoying her life in the warm company of her friends. She spends time with her friends gossiping, watching television, and listening to radio programmes. At the same time she maintains a very cordial relation with her close kin, who are scattered in different parts of the city. Some of her relatives too make occasional visits to the Home to see her.

Miss S. Bose (69) is a Hindu Kayastha who came to Rabindra Niketan in 2009. Miss Bose served as a teacher in St. John’s Diocesan Girls’ High School. Before moving to the Home she was living with her elder brother and sister-in-law while making financial contributions to the family on regular basis. After retirement she decided not to stay with her brother as she did not want to be a burden in the family. She was under some kind of stress not knowing what to do with her leisure time. Her brother and sister-in-law were busy with their own works. She was in dire need of friends with whom she could share her life experiences and memories and spend time meaningfully. Although her brother and sister-in-law never misbehaved there was not much warmth in the relations. She wanted people who would be interested in knowing her and she would also be able to know about new people and their life. She also wanted greater freedom in life and hence decided to shift to a decent Home. She thought, in the Home she would live a life without anyone’s interference and without being ‘burden’ on anyone. After shifting to this Home she continued to be in touch with all her relations, with her elder brother and sister-in-law. She continues to visit them in regular intervals. In the Home she has decorated her room wonderfully with colorful curtains, pillows and bed cover. She has also made a number of friends with whom she spends most of her time, cracking jokes, helping them when they need. In the Home Miss. Bose lives a happy and peaceful life, a life on her own terms.

Unhealthy relations and quarrels in the family can force some aged to leave their siblings and family for the Home. Miss. D. Ghoshal (76) a Hindu Brahmin, who was a schoolteacher, came to Rabindra Niketan in 2000. She used to live with her brothers at a flat in Behala. She continued to live with them even after her retirement. She tried to maintain a cordial relation with all her brothers. Being the eldest sister she expected that her brothers would consult her in taking important family decisions. But this was not happening for some time. The flat that her brother bought in Behala was in the top floor and there was no lift. She had problem in her knees and it was impossible for her to climb the stairs. She felt hurt that her brothers did not consult her before finalizing the purchase deal. She thought her brothers do not care for her any more. That time she decided to move to a Home. She thought it better to live the rest of her life in a Home than to live amidst the people not giving her due respect that she deserved. She searched for an old age home and chose Rabindra Niketan. She likes the ambience here and enjoys enough freedom. She has made many friends with whom she spends quality time. She also maintains relations with her brothers. She does not nurse towards them any ill-feeling anymore. She and her brothers exchange visits and keep in touch over cell-phone. She feels that the physical distance has helped erase off the ill-feelings.

The aged people who are unmarried come to the Homes, living their own house or flat, when there is none to look after them, and particularly when their health condition deteriorates and hired services of care provider is found to be inadequate. One such case is that of Mr. Dey (78), a Hindu Kayastha, who moved to Mukto Bihango in 2013. Mr. Dey lost his parents many years ago. His only brother also died of cancer in his early age. He used to live in a rented house at Kashba. He had to undergo cataract surgery a few years back. After the operation it became difficult for him to stay alone in his flat. His only relative was his niece who used to stay in Durgapur. It was not feasible for his niece to come and stay with him as she had her own family and was teaching in a college in Durgapur. With the help of his niece and her husband he found this Home. Now, here he gets proper care and security. He sometimes feels bored for not having to do anything. He maintains strong bond with his niece and her family. His niece bears all the expenses of Mr. Dey. She calls him frequently and also comes to visit him whenever she gets time. For some months Mr. Dey was feeling lonely in this Home but now he has made good adjustment with the life and routine here and has made a few friends with whom he loves spending time and sharing his feelings.

2.2.2 The widow/widower who come to the old age home

Loss of life partner (spouse) creates a vacuum in the life of the widow or the widower and this has been the most widely cited reason, particularly by the women, for leaving their house. With the number of children restricted to one or two, who in most cases live away from home, the spouseless man or woman becomes the lone inhabitant in the house. The widows or widowers whose daughters are married off to a distant city and their sons working in another place and staying with their respective families feel insecure and lonely and show a tendency to move to the Home. Apart from insecurity and loneliness the spouseless aged women, who had been over-dependent on their husbands following the patterns of patriarchal social order, find management of everyday life extremely difficult. Catching of ailments could be another turning point in their life when physical dependence on somebody becomes unavoidable. The children, who stay away, usually extend support to their parent(s) but the demands of their profession prevent them from taking long leave to be with their lone parent. Friends and other kin extend support at the time of crisis but they do not usually come to live with the old lone lady or man. The loss of spouse, the most trusted partner, brings the conjugal life to a close, and this leaves a massive destabilizing effect on the life of the surviving partner. The everyday life undergoes a major reorganization and the loneliness becomes insurmountable. As a way out, the aged move to the Home.

Mr. M. Kar (75), a Hindu Kayestha, lives in Mukto Bihango since March, 2014. He was an employee of Indian Railways. His family consisted of his wife and two daughters. After marriage, his daughters went to live in their respective husband’s family. In his professional career, Mr. Kar was posted in different places but his wife, who was a schoolteacher, had to live in their house at Dakhineshwar managing the family. Mr. Kar retired from his job in 2000 and returned home to live with his family. In 2005 his wife passed away. After her death Mr. Kar started feeling very lonely. His daughters, who lived in other parts of Kolkata extended their support to help their father getting out of the crisis but they had their own families to care for and a lot of responsibilities to shoulder. Mr. Kar started visiting his daughters searching for warmth and care as a strategy to fight out loneliness. His daughters and sons-in-law were accommodative and treated him well but he could not stay long since it goes against the social values and he was not feeling comfortable. Having been through a phase of dilemma he decided to move to the present Home. Here he has made many friends. He chats with them, watches cricket and football match together on television, share some light moments pulling each other’s leg, cracking jokes, singing songs. He enjoys his life in the Home fully. He does not have to think about his security. His daughters call him on a regular basis and visit him once or sometimes twice a month. He also visits them whenever he feels like. He does not feel lonely and have friends to spend time with and share his feeling.

Most of the spouseless aged in the Homes were women. The death of their husbands, who took good care of them and their worries, and dispersal of their children because of job or marriage, left a huge vacuum and helplessness in their life, which they could not handle. Some of them stayed in their house as long as they were physically fit, but when their health deteriorated the situation became simply unmanageable. Their children could not come and stay with them or they were also reluctant to move to their children’s places. Some of them tried to live in their own house hiring the care providers, but they could not depend on them; a sense of insecurity grabbed them. Movement to the Homes came to them as a solution.

Mrs. S. Sarkar, a 72-year-old Hindu Kayestha, came to Mukto Bihango in 2012. She used to live in Jagatdal with her husband, who was an office staff in a jute mill, and two daughters. Her husband died many years back. She married off her elder daughter, who shifted to Mumbai with her husband. After the death of her husband Mrs. Sarkar moved to her elder daughter’s flat in Jadavpur, which was lying vacant. Completing graduation her younger daughter got married and moved to Pune to live with her in-laws. As Mrs. Sarkar was feeling lonely in Jadavpur apartment her elder daughter took her to Mumbai where she lived for about 10 years. In 2013 her elder son-in-law got transferred to Singapore and her daughter had to accompany him. They wanted Mrs. Sarkar to go with them but she refused. She then came back to Jadavpur and started staying in a rented house as the flat in Jadavpur where she stayed earlier was disposed off. In Jadavpur she had an accident and had fractures in her legs and hip bone. She spent a couple of months in bed-rest, managed with the services of hired care-providers and then started walking with support. Her elder daughter rushed to her side immediately after the accident and took care of her but she had to return to her husband in Singapore. The hired care providers were irregular and Mrs. Sarkar was feeling insecure and facing a lot of inconveniences. It became almost impossible for her to stay alone in the flat. Her younger daughter could not be of much help since she was living in Pune and had responsibilities towards her family. Besides she was teaching in a school. In such a situation Mrs. Sarkar decided to move to the present Home. Mrs. Sarkar’s elder daughter and son-in-law bear all her expenses for her stay in the Home. Her younger daughter also sends her money. Mrs. Sarkar is happy with the facilities and treatment she receives in the Home. She likes the food, the warm company of the home-inmates and the weekly medical check-up. The home-staff take good care of her and she feels fully secure. She spends her time watching television, reading newspapers and gossiping with Home-inmates. Both her daughters and sons-in-law call her and keep enquiring about her health and needs on daily basis. She finds old-age home is a solution to her problems in this late age.

There are aged widows/widowers who have come to the Home after having a serious fight with her/his son, daughter-in-law or daughters, with whom they were living after the death of their spouse. After losing their spouse the aged become emotionally dependent on their close kin, especially their children and they feel extremely hurt when the latter do not respond to their expectations. They live in the family of their sons or daughters-in-law with a great deal of uneasiness particularly when the latter treat the aged as a burden. The aged live without freedom and authority, and tension builds up on difference of opinions on matters of everyday life, like food, living arrangement and so on. Quarrels and humiliation follow such differences. The aged feel powerless and look to escape from such situation.

Mr. B. Das, 83 years of age, a Hindu Kayastha came to Mukto Bihango in 2011. Mr. Das had a happy family consisting of his wife, son and daughter-in-law. His wife, a trusted, caring companion, died a few years ago, leaving him dependent on his son and daughter-in-law. His daughter-in-law, who was initially well-behaved and caring, started misbehaving with Mr. Das. She started dictating terms. Mr. Das loved curd and rice for his lunch but he was served with chicken and fried rice. Reminded of his food preferences her daughter-in-law would tell him to get it from the market. There were many such small incidents, which hurt Mr. Das and had him humiliated. He felt unwanted and decided to move to the present Home where he lives a life without any interference. He pays the bills out of his pension. He does not keep much contact with his only son and his family and the latter too do not care much about him. His son and daughter-in-law have not visited him in the Home even once in the last one year. Mr. Das also has a daughter who is married and lives with her family in Kolkata. She is however fond of him and calls him frequently and cares for him. In the Home he has made some good friends with whom he spends great time. He lives a life with honour and free of humiliation but at the same time, regrets that his only son, for whom he did so much, has let him down.

The widows or the widowers come to the old age home as they do not want to live with their children as dependents, even when there is no apparent tension in the relationships. They do not want to put any pressure on their children and do not want to interfere in their children’s personal life. Their children are already grown up and busy with their life, job and family and they want to live a life the way they want. As long as the aged are physically fit they do not face much problem. But when they fall sick and spouseless they become ‘burden’ on their children. Even when their children want their aged parents to stay with them the latter do not want to live as burden. They sometimes try to manage life with the help of professional care providers but this arrangement does not give stability as the care providers are not regular and sincere. The sons and daughters-in-law are busy with their profession and they cannot take the kind of care the ailing aged need. As a way out the aged take refuge in old-age home. Even when the aged parents are not that ill they move to Home just to have a life of their own without bothering their children for anything. They sometimes dispose of their property and divide the money among their children before moving to Home.

Mrs. J. Chatterjee (69), a female Hindu Brahmin started living in Mukto Bihango since 2012. Mrs. Chatterjee used to live in her parental house at Raja Bazaar in North Kolkata. Three years after her marriage her husband died and she, along with her two daughters, shifted to her parental house leaving her in-laws.. She had a brother and three sisters. All her sisters moved out of their parental house after marriage. She lived with her window mother in their Raja Bazaar house. Her mother’s death a few years back left her all alone, as her daughters are married and live with their own families. The house she was living in was quite big and it appeared to be a liability, difficult to maintain. Her elder daughter asked her to stay in her family but Mrs. Chatterjee refused. She decided to move to this Home in search of a life of freedom and dignity. She has savings, fixed in bank; she pays the bills out of the interest she gets. Her elder daughter also helps her financially. In the Home she lives a comfortable and peaceful life. She has made a number of friends with whom she loves spending time. In fact for her ability to plan and organize innovative programmes , she has been accepted as the informal leader by the Home inmates. . The home staffs take good care of her. Her daughters maintain a healthy relation with her. They call her frequently and keep on enquiring about her health and daily activities. They take her to their house on family occasions. The Home arranges group tour to different parts of India once a year.

2.2.3 The aged couples living in old-age home

There are three aged couples living in Rabindra Niketan and each of them has a different reason for coming here. In one case the premature death of their only child in an accident made living in the house unbearable as the memory of their daughter haunted them; in the second case the couple moved to the Home in search of freedom and care and they did not want to be burden on their children; and the third couple came to Rabindra Niketan having faced space problem as a result of expansion of the household.

Mr. S. Sen (aged 79), a Hindu Kayastha, had come to the old age home with his wife in early 2014. Before the shift the couple was living in their flat at Santoshpur. They had a daughter who died of accident few years ago. Mr. Sen, an employee of South Eastern Railways, had a middle class living with his wife and daughter. After the daughter’s death they found it impossible to live in that house as the memories of their daughter were haunting them. With growing age they were developing a number of health problems. Mr. Sen was having eye problem and his wife had arthritis and high blood pressure. They could not find dependable care providers, and decided to move to the present Home. In the last 10 months they have adjusted with the life in the Home. Recently Mr. Sen had an eye surgery and the Home authorities extended all possible support. In the Home they have made a couple of friends with whom they spend quality time. The Home has a time tested care giving arrangement and follows professional ethics. There is none to disturb them and they also do not interfere in others’ life. The company of the fellow boarders has helped the couple overcome the pain and shock they were under. Here they have come to know that the other borders also nurse pain of one kind or the other.

One couple moved into the old-age home because they did not want to interfere with their children’s life and did not want to sacrifice their own freedom. Seventy two year old Mrs. S. Mukherjee, who lives in Rabindra Niketan with her husband said: ‘we want to live our life in our own way and we want our children to live their own’. Mr. Mukherjee was an officer with Oil and Natural Gas Company. They could have lived in a separate arrangement in a different flat but a sense of insecurity brought them to the Home. They felt satisfied with the care-package of the Home and thought that living in Kolkata they would be in regular touch with their children and other close ones. Mrs. S. Mukherjee and her husband (79) moved to Rabindra Niketan in 2012 leaving their flat in Salt Lake locked. They have two daughters, both are married. After their daughters’ marriage Mr. and Mrs. Mukherjee were feeling lonely. Mrs. Mukherjee developed Alzheimer disease and was in need of close care. Mr. Mukherjee had hearing problem and a lot of other ailments. Caring for each other was increasingly becoming a problem. They tried to manage with hired care providers but were not satisfied with their service. They did not want to be burdens on their married daughters, who had their own families and jobs to handle. Their room in the Home contains a refrigerator and a microwave. Mrs. Mukherjee loves singing; she has brought her harmonium with her. The couple spends most of the time in their room, reading books, newspapers, watching television programmes and singing songs. They do not interact with other boarders much. Their daughters maintain a very cordial relation with them and visit their parents often. The couple miss their flat badly and live with the fond memory of happy family life. They had to choose life in the Home as the last resort.

Space crisis in the house because of household/family expansion can also lead the aged couples seeking refuge in the Home. As long as the sons are unmarried the aged couples do not face the space problem but when their son/sons get married and have child/children they usually encounter two kinds of problems. First, after marriage the son brings his wife home, and if there is not enough room the newly-wed couple face lack of privacy. The parents also feel awkward sharing the room adjacent to their newly-wed son and daughter-in-law. Second, when the parents become grandparents and their grandchildren grow up (and ask for a separate study room) the family faces another round of space crisis. The aged couples then choose to move to the Home as they find it logical to give some free space to their son and his family. The aged couple feels that this is a rational decision for the parents as well as the children since it does not necessarily spoil their relationship. The couple could have bought a flat to live but they do not do that considering their age, cost and security.

Mrs. K. Basu (68), a Hindu Kayastha, has been living in Rabindra Niketan with her husband since 2012. Both Mrs. and Mr. Basu served as college teachers. They had a flat in Lake Gardens (Kolkata), which has been left for their son, daughter-in-law and grandson. It was a two bed room flat and after their son’s marriage they faced space problem. Problem grew with the birth of their grandson. Mr. and Mrs. Basu then decided to move to the present Home. Initially they felt bad for leaving their own house and the family of their closest ones. They took the decision with a heavy heart keeping in mind the convenience and happiness of their son and his family. It has been two years that they are living in the Home and they have adjusted well with the life here. In Rabindra Niketan they live in a double-bed room, which is one of the bigger rooms in the Home. Mrs. Basu has decorated the room wonderfully according to her taste. Both of them get pension, which make them economically self-reliant. Here they feel well cared and the Home ambience conforms to their taste. The boarders represent educated urban middle class and have cultural similarities. Their son, daughter-in-law and grandson continue to be close to their heart. The two sides exchange visits and are in regular touch over cell phone. Their daughter-in-law calls them regularly and visits them almost every weekend. Mr. and Mrs. Basu have made so many friends in this Home and they spend time in adda sessions every afternoon. They do not regret their decision but miss their grandson a lot.

2.2.4 The Childless widows who have no one to look after them

There are many childless aged widows among the borders in Home. These aged childless widows felt lonely and insecure after the death of their spouse. Before moving to the Home they were living in their flat/house/rented house with their spouse. The growing age and ailments made them insecure in their own house. They sensed certain degree of insecurity in employing the professional care providers. Their relatives offered support but they did not want to depend on them.

Sixty six year old Mrs. R. Chatterjee, a Hindu Brahmin, came to Rabindra Niketan in March 2014. She used to stay in their own flat in Santoshpur with her husband. She was a high school teacher and her husband had a family business. The childless couple had a perfect understanding and a relation based of love, care and mutual respect. After retirement Mrs. Chatterjee was doing private tuition. She had interest in interior decoration and her husband had interest in cooking. He used to cook Indian, Chinese and continental dishes. They were having a very smooth and happy life. Death of her husband in 2012 left her mentally shattered; she felt like being in the sea not knowing how to live a life alone. She developed glaucoma and the condition of her eyes was deteriorating day by date. Loneliness gripped her and she was missing her husband badly. Unable to cope with such mental stress, loneliness and insecurity she decided to move to Rabindra Niketan disposing off her house. She lives on pension and interest on her savings. She does not depend on anybody for financial help. She took time in adjusting with the life in the Home but now she has adjusted well. She has made a couple of friends with whom she loves spending time. She spends time by chatting with other boarders, listening to her small radio and watching television. She also tries to attend the music class, yoga class, and physiotherapy sessions conducted by the Home authorities from time to time. Her health has improved and she lives a free and happy life.

2.2.5 Aged woman whose husband has left her

There is one case where the aged woman’s husband has deserted her and her only son lives in Bangalore, where he works, with his family. The woman, Mrs. S. Banerjee (70 years), lived with her husband in their own flat/house/ rented house, sharing all joy and sufferings together, having a son, rearing him up and getting him settled in life. But in 2012 she had to take refuge in Mukto Bihango after being deserted by her husband. Economically she is dependent on her son who sends her money every month. They had a house in Durgapur where her husband was posted. But when their son got a job in Bangalore Mr. and Mrs. Banerjee disposed off their house and went to Bangalore to live with their son and daughter-in-law. But, they did not like the place. Their son and daughter-in-law were busy with their job the whole day and the aged couple was having an idle purposeless life. They came back to Kolkata and started living in a rented house in Ghashiara. They were living a peaceful and normal life but one day her husband left her saying ‘I am going to Durgapur and will return in three days’. But he never returned. Mrs. Banerjee waited for 15-20 days, sought help from her relatives in finding her husband but everything proved to be futile. It was becoming difficult for her to stay alone. Her son wanted her to stay with them but she refused as she knew that she won’t be able to adjust in Bangalore. Her son came to Kolkata and with the help of Mrs. Banerjee’s elder brother, who lives in Kolkata, found this Home for her. She took time to adjust with life in the Home but now she has started liking the place and some of her fellow boarders. She feels protected and well cared by the Home management; fellow borders’ support comes as a bonus. She knows that she will have to live the rest of her life here. She however finds it difficult to forget the fact that her husband, whom she trusted the most and needed the most in this late-age, has deserted her. Her son takes all-possible care of her and comes to see her occasionally.

2.2.6 Aged people who were having inconveniences in living with their children

There are some cases where the aged have come to the old-age home since they could not adjust well with their grown up children and the other members of the family. It is not that the younger members were ill-treating or misbehaving; they did not just like each-other’s way of life. In some cases the younger members were too busy with their professional life and the aged member was feeling lonely and uncared. They developed unbridgeable mental gap and loss of purpose in life. The aged people can feel lonely even when they are living with their children in their own house. The problem is more if they have to live outside Kolkata, where they hardly know anybody with whom they could interact and share their feelings. Differential language and culture also come in the way to developing relationship with the neighbours in a place out of West Bengal. In Kolkata they have at least some friends and relatives with whom they can interact and spend time. The problems compound when one of the parents falls sick and the children, preoccupied with professional responsibilities, cannot find time to take care of their ailing parent(s).

Mrs. J. Mukherjee (76), a Hindu Brahmin, started living in Mukto Bihango since 2012. Mrs. Mukherjee used to live with her husband in Ranchi, Jharkhand. She was working in Mahindra Company and her husband in Balaji International. Besides her job Mrs. Mukherjee shouldered the responsibility of looking after her six daughters. All the daughters were married off after graduation. After the untimely death of her husband in 1994 Mrs. Mukherjee left her job and started living with her eldest daughter. Mrs. Mukherjee’s travelled to many places with her daughter and son-in-law, who had a transferable job. In 2012 her daughter was diagnosed having neurological disorder. Her health deteriorated within a few months and she had to be admitted to a hospital. Mrs. Mukherjee then started living with one of her younger daughters. But this daughter was too busy looking after her business. Mrs. Mukherjee was feeling lonely there. Around this time Mrs. Mukherjee’s arthritis took a worse turn and she couldn’t even hold a glass properly. The fingers of her feet developed serious problem. Under such circumstances, Mrs. Mukherjee herself decided to move to an old age home for the time being. Her daughters were reluctant to let her go but she persuaded them to agree to her decision. It has been almost two years that Mrs. Mukherjee is staying in this Home. For the first few months she did not like the place but now she has accepted the arrangement and the ambience of the Home. She has made a few friends and spends time with them gossiping. She loves the freedom here but at the same time misses her daughters and grand children. She reads religious books, listens to radio programmes, watches television and occasionally attends some outdoor programmes organized by the Home management. Her daughters call her on a regular basis and enquire about her health. They also visit her frequently. She is happy about the fact that her eldest daughter is much better now and within a few months her husband will retire. They have built a house in Jalpaiguri where they plan to spend the rest of their life. In the house they have a room with attached bathroom for Mrs. Mukherjee in the ground floor. Mrs. Mukherjee is happy that she can live with her caring daughter and son-in-law and their child once again.

3. Interpretation of the field data and conclusion

The findings of the study, as the survey data and case studies reveal, clearly suggest that the stereotype that the members of the younger do not care for their parents and subject them to ill-treatment and that is the reason why the aged take refuge in old-age homes (a perfect demonstration of this stereotype could be seen in the Hindi film Bagban or the famous Nachiketa song ‘Bridhyasram’) works in a very few cases (nearly four percent). Only in one case a lady had to come to the Home because she was deserted by her husband at a late age, and four out of 56 respondents (about seven per cent) mentioned strained relation in the family. This piece of information prompts us to reject the ‘cruelty thesis’ for the plight of the middle class aged. The predominant reasons for movement to the Home, as the present study suggests, are (1) not marrying and resulting loneliness in old-age, (2) death of the spouse and dispersal of the children, (3) death of the only child, childlessness, and dispersal of the child/children. All these three problems have nothing to do with ‘cruelty of the children’ but are rooted in rationalization of the family size, and dispersal of the children because of marriage (in case of women) or profession, both being the result of intrusion of calculative rationalism, which again is a part of urban middle class culture and ‘habitus’. Before moving to the Homes the aged face problems like ‘insecurity’, ‘loneliness’ and problems relating to handling of everyday domestic chores. The deteriorating health and ailments compound their problems and they do not feel safe in the hands of hired service providers. Thus it is a combination of collective choice (hence cultural) of small family, individual choice of not marrying and rational choice of profession by the younger members (which results their dispersal) and natural factors like death of child or death of spouse and aging-related health problems that make the aged leave their houses/families and take refuge in the Homes.

The crisis that confronts the urban middle class aged is a recent development in the life of the aged, which is likely to be thicker in the life of the present generation of youth. The crisis was not so acute a generation or two back since rationalization of family size is a fact of life of the present generation. There is a great deal of confusion at the societal level as to what could be the way out. The state, the legislations and social support are non-existent for the urban middle class aged studied here. They suffer from the ‘crises’ of their own creation and make efforts to find a solution. The urge to live and live a good life works as an eternal motivator. Almost all the aged want to live in their own house in the midst of their close ones. But when this does not happen they make different kinds of adjustments like hiring the services of the care providers, evolve some form of health management system, try to remain engaged in community activities and services, political/organizational activities and so on (Roy 2015). When such efforts fail the aged move to the Homes as the last resort.

The stigma that was conventionally attached to old-age homes are on the wane; most of the Homes, which mushroomed in recent years in and around the metropolis, have turned ‘professional’ and they do business while, at the same time, care for ‘customer satisfaction’. They offer packages that can match the expectations of the middle class clients. The living arrangement, the means of entertainment, group prayers, yoga classes, occasional outings, picnics and so on constitute a part of package that is offered to the Home inmates. Besides, the Homes have arrangement for health check-ups, hospitalization (in case of emergency), and even arrangement for last rites in case of deaths. The Home inmates generally feel tension-free and secure and make friends who help driving their loneliness away. Despite having minor grievances on the services most of the aged look at Home life as a solution to their worries and insecurities. They relish the freedom of life and the happiness for not having to depend on anybody; even for money they do not depend on anybody thanks to their middle class background. Most of them believe that Home living helps maintain healthy relation with their children, wherever they live, and their close kin. The movement to Home also helps the children living their life the way they want.

On the theoretical plane the social scientists in India are engaged in a long standing debate on the question whether India will follow the West where ‘calculative rationalism’ has colonized every nook and corner of modern (or post-modern) life or the traditional values and institutions will find a healthy space in urban life, including the life of the aged. It appears that the social scientists like Weber (1968), Parsons (1959), Goode (1963) and many others would like us to believe that ‘calculative rationalism’ will lead to the collapse of the traditional social order and values. Many Indian scholars, the social gerontologists in particular such as Jain (2011), Phukan (2006), Shukla (2011), Pandya (2011), approach the life of the aged from the Weberian perspective (although they do not necessarily claim so) arguing that the plight of the aged is rooted in the breakdown of the traditional family values, which were based on mutual love, care and support. There is another group of scholars who argue that Indian society has enough resilience to combat the forces of modernization, Westernization and even globalization where the members largely uphold the conventional social values and preserve the institutions like family, kinship, friendship, neighbourhood association, which are witnesses of the time-tested values. They clearly do not see any impending threat to these social institutions (Shah, 1998a, 1998b, 1999; Desai, 1964 ; Uberoi, 2003 ),

Although findings here largely corroborate the findings of the scholars in the second group that primarily stick to the ‘resilience’ thesis, yet it would be misleading if we fail to see the significant changes that are happening at the level of micro social relation, particularly in family, kinship and community spheres, and which are contributing to create a social crisis. The decision not to marry, the check on reproductive behavior by the married couples, attachment of high value to one’s profession and the resulting dispersal of the younger members, property-related disputes and the resulting break up of families, attaching high value to one’s own freedom and in granting freedom to the younger members, acceptance of Home life – all indicate to the emergence of a new urban middle class life, based on elements of rationalism, although not necessarily in Weberian sense. The middle class ‘metropolitan mind’ seems to be preparing for the crises that build up with aging, while, at the same time, faced with a lot of unarticulated dilemma.


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Research Scholar, Department of Sociology, North Bengal University, Dist. Darjeeling, West Bengal-734013, Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.