Special Articles / T.K. Nair / Older People in Rural Tamilnadu
Ageing is a process. Old age is referred to as the penultimate stage in the biological process of conception, growth, maturity, decline and death. The period of decline due to ageing is known as senescence. But the rate of decline varies from individual to individual. The exact age at which old age starts is controversial. Similarly there is little agreement on the physiological characteristics of old age. Their appearance, frequency and severity vary from person to person.
Old age is perhaps easily understood than defined. Chronologically it is after a certain age. But no specific age in the life span of an individual can be fixed as the starting point of old age. Benson (1971) says that the erroneous idea that old age begins at sixty five is slowly being moved out. Instead, seventy five is the dividing line because a person’s sensory abilities of taste, smell, sight, hearing and probably touch decline most noticeably at this stage. This period is also the beginning of many chronic health problems.
Ageing is a natural process; whereas old age is arbitrary. Determination of old age differs from society to society depending on the social organization, level of economy, standard of living and health services on the one hand and the socio-cultural beliefs on the other. Again, socially popular concept of old age need not coincide with the personal experience or acceptance of it. Yet, determination of who are the old is necessary for the formulation of social policies and programmes. Age of retirement from organised employment is often taken as the starting point of old age. Where age of retirement is determined from the point of providing jobs to the growing number of unemployed youth, the determination of old age from that point in time in human life becomes untenable. For instance, the age of retirement of most categories of employees in India is either 55 or 58 and there is demand in some quarters to further decrease the age to meet the massive challenge of unemployment.
Old age, according to the working definition of this study, starts from the sixtieth year. Traditionally, the sixtieth year has been considered to be the beginning of old age in India. Completion of 60 years, “Shastiabdipoorthi”, is an important milestone in the life of an individual, which not many are lucky to reach. Depending on the caste affiliation, family status and income, it is celebrated. This is mainly because most people seldom survive into the sixtieth year. The expectation of life at birth in India is much less than 60 and the age of retirement of most categories of employees is either 55 or 58. Psychologically too most Indians appear to consider themselves old earlier than the chronological age of sixty. And the Indian woman perceives herself to be old much earlier than the man. The moment one becomes a grandparent, one is automatically viewed as old.
Whatever be the difficulties in defining old age, the older people are, by and large, distinguishable from the young because of certain physical characteristics. The wrinkling skin, the greying hair and the shrinking in the stature are some. Bergmann, (1972) adds that the pattern of illness may also change; in old age as people grow older there is a greater likelihood of several illnesses to be present together. Medical opinion associates old age with sensory impairments, particularly vision and hearing, glandular and metabolic changes, slow responses, chronic ailments, diminished energy, increased fatigue and decreased capacity to do different physical tasks independently. On the other hand, Lang (1961) categorically states that there are probably no diseases caused by growing old. It is Lang’s contention that there is no scientific evidence in support of the popular view that old age is a period of poor health, mental deterioration and loneliness.
Despite the controversies on the physiological features of old age, it is a period of change in employment status, income level and family composition. It is also characterised by unpleasant and even traumatic emotional experiences like death of peers, loss of spouse and separation from children.
It is true that in rural areas, cessation of work is not abrupt and retirement not sudden as most of the workers are outside the organised sector and people can work as long as they can or as long as they want to, provided there are adequate opportunities for work. Among those who have land to cultivate or who are self-employed in other occupations, there is a gradual change over from heavy to light tasks and transfer of responsibility to younger members of the household. Yet, at some point of time, people give up work, some earlier and some later. Those who do not retire at all are a very small minority. Transition from employment to retirement is a critical phase in one’s life. Retirement from work normally brings about deprivation and hardships. Employment means income (however, meagre it may be), participation in productive activity, independence and status; retirement often implies the reduction or opposite of all these. Retirement marks a break from the life centering around a definite purpose to one of uncertainty. It means a reordering of life economically, socially, and psychologically. Retirement and dependence operate together. Those who do not earn and depend on others normally lose status in the family as well as in the community and experience feeling of uselessness. Men, Cavan (1952) says, are more severely affected by retirement because they “secure their primary status and feeling of worth from their jobs, while most women receive it from their roles as wife, homemaker and mother”. With retirement, time becomes surplus and boredom sets in. The utilisation of free time needs a reorganisation of daily routine, which many are hardly able to do it. Retirement, thus, marks the final stage of the family life cycle according to Duvall (1967). With reduction in economic roles there may be loss in community roles too. The process of being pushed from the centre of action to the fringe is painful. Bergmann (1972) says that both retirement and old age represent a loss of social position and prestige for most persons. For the individual it could be an extremely disturbing experience to reconcile to a completely changed personal situation.
Old Age in Hindu Scriptures
The Hindu scriptures divide the life of a man into four stages or Asramas: Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha and Sanyasa. The first is the stage of study, discipline and celibacy, and the second that of the householder. The third stage is the semi-retirement period which starts when the hair of the householder turns white and he sees his son’s son. He relinquishes his major responsibilities to his son and retires from the active pursuit of material life. He lives away from home either with his wife or leaving her to the care of his sons. This is the preparatory stage for the final separation from the pains and pleasures of human life. In the final stage, the individual leads the life of a recluse striving for the attainment of the spiritual goals and the final salvation. A staff, a begging bowl, and a few rags of clothing are his only belongings (Prabhu, 1961). This has been the scriptural ideal, but not the social practice. Though the scriptural prescription for the old is disengagement (Cumming & Henry, 1961) from society and renunciation of material life, only a negligibly small number, probably belonging to the higher castes, might have completely observed the sacred law in the remote past.
Aged and the Joint Family
The traditional family in India is the joint family. In the joint family system, cultivation or occupation was carried on jointly by the members of the household and the produce or income pooled together and utilized for the whole family’s benefit. Caste, family, services and land were the chief characteristics of the traditional Indian rural society. Caste determined the services to be rendered by the families which in turn decided the control of land. Within the family, the senior most man was the head. He was responsible for the management of property, care for all persons in the household, and education and marriage of younger members. The aged, who were the heads of families, were also the leaders of the kin group, caste and village. Srinivas (1956) observes, “The elders of the dominant peasant caste in Rampura administer justice not only to members of their own caste group but also to all persons of other castes who seek their invention. Even now, in rural areas, taking disputes to the local elders is considered to be better than taking them to the urban law courts”.
Gore (1968) says that the “principle of seniority” in a joint family “is generally supported by the cultural system characteristic of peasant societies. In a society where change is slow, the solutions of yesterday for the problems of life are still valid today. The man who has had to face these problems in his life time and find solutions to them is therefore a man who can give leadership. The older man has therefore higher rank. In the joint family this principle is institutionalized…… The eldest male member therefore becomes the centre of authority in the joint family”. He wielded great power and was endowed with great authority. The younger members paid great deference to him. The veneration of the aged in the joint family was perfected by the practice of ancestor worship. “Within each patrilineal extended family all submit to the oldest man” (Gough, 1956). Even grown up married men, themselves the fathers of children, are expected to act in accordance with their father’s advice and wishes. As members of a joint family they are not in control of property as long as their father is alive, and submissiveness and deference to elders are more highly valued virtues than initiative and independence of spirit”(Haimendorf, 1963).
The traditional rural society thus conferred a pre-eminent position to the aged. The more one ages the greater is his responsibility, the more are his roles and higher is his status. Experience is a requisite of the agricultural society. As experience grows with age, the elders commanded greater respect and position. They were the reservoirs of wisdom and keepers of tradition and folklore. They were considered the repositories of wisdom, knowledge, experience and skills, and were treated with deference and veneration. Even today, the younger person is expected to place his head on the elder’s feet on marriage and other ceremonial occasions.
Most of the elderly persons interviewed for the present study (92 per cent) support the view that the aged enjoyed higher status in the early days. They say that the words of the elders were final, when they were young. They are unhappy with the present younger generation because they seldom listen to the advice of the older persons. But the joint family and the socio-cultural-economic context which conferred a pre-eminent position to the aged in the family, the kin group and the village community have been changing in structure and functions. Political democracy, universal franchise, socialist orientation, spread of social reform, political and social movements, democratisation of education, elected village panchayats, land reform, legislations on marriage, divorce, succession, inheritance and right to property, monetisation of the economy, improved communication, impact of mass media, exodus of the young to the towns and cities, pressure of urbanisation, development programmes, particularly family planning and development of women and weaker sections, constitutional and legislative measures to abolish inequalities like untouchability are the major forces that have contributed to the structural and institutional changes in Indian society. In this process of change, the solidarity of the traditional joint family is weakened. Concomitantly, the roles and status of the aged are changing. Hereditary leadership is being replaced by elected leadership. Experience as the sole criterion of roles of responsibility is giving way to the criteria of efficiency and effectiveness. Consequently, the leadership of the elderly is under pressure. The economic and social support, once enjoyed by the aged from the family and the community, is on the decline.
Devanandam and Thomas 1966 are of the view that there is a change from kin-oriented to an interest-oriented outlook because of the influence of technology, money economy, education and the national development programmes. This change in outlook undermines the traditional joint family as a social security institution. Though the aged and other dependants are taken care of, there is a change in the general atmosphere. “They are looked upon sometimes as people who do not have legitimate claims for their support by the family. It affects the emotional and psychological security they need”.
The findings of Marulasiddaiah (1969) based on his study in a Karnataka village are gloomy. Most of the older people in the village are in poverty; the existence of the joint family is an exceptional feature; and there is neglect by relatives as the elderly grow older. He writes: “No sooner-do-you get your son married than you make arrangements for the breaking up of your family: this is how the people put it.” He adds that of the nearly 300 families “there are hardly 10 joint families, and that too, ridden with quarrels.” He observes the loss of respect of the elders in the family, the ineffective role played by them in the wider kin group, caste and village affairs, and their declining authority in social and political life, though they are consulted on matters involving ritual complexities.
“The basic pre-occupation of social gerontology as it has emerged within the last two decades may be categorized as being concerned with integration versus segregation. Are old people integrated into society or are they separated from it? This is perhaps not only the most important theoretical question in social gerontology today but also the key question affecting all social policies concerning the aged” (Friis,et al., 1968). The danger arises when the central theme of segregation and integration is lost in the observability of the problems of the older people or when there is the tendency for generalisation from problems. The outstanding cross-national study on the aged in the USA. the UK and Denmark by Shanas and associates (1968) show that the aged are more integrated than segregated, though there are problems of diverse nature in varying degrees. The study on older people in Madras city by Nair (1972) on the lines of the cross-national study also comes to the same conclusion. He observes that the family “still remains the strong integrating social unit in form and function, mutuality and interdependence. Instead of separation between children and parents, we find nearness and close contact. The living arrangement of the elderly and their proximity to children, patterns of contact, and help between old people, and their children, grandchildren, siblings and other relatives, the care and services they receive from family are definite indicators of family solidarity ——— The totally isolated individual is a rarity.” Nair adds that “while segregative forces like widowhood, ill-health, incapacity, low or no income and reduced opportunities for labour force participation align against the ageing individual, the integrating process is far more overpowering”.
Not only do the elderly increase in number and proportion, but there are also growing economic and social consequences; and the growing visibility of the increasing older population has recently brought about greater awareness among planners, administrators, social workers, social scientists, medical personnel and journalists that the older people in our society deserve more attention than they have been given hitherto. But scientifically obtained information on the life of the aged in India has been quite inadequate to help formulate social policy regarding the elderly, to introduce new welfare programmes and to modify the existing services. This study covers the rural aged in general in one of the Indian states and perhaps no such study of this magnitude has so far been attempted in India. This study on the problems of the aged in 200 villages in Tamilnadu is perhaps the first large scale study on thisissue in India.
The objectives of the survey were to study the conditions and to ascertain the problems of the elderly with special reference to their health condition and health care, living arrangement, family and social relationships, employment and retirement, economic situation,and leisure time activities.
The study covered persons aged sixty and over living in private households in the villages of Tamilnadu. Aged persons living in institutions were not included for the study.
Method of Study
Before the actual survey plan was finalised, a pilot study was conducted in three purposively selected villages to test the sampling procedures suggested, to canvas the draft schedule and to finalise the organizational design of the study.
From a study of the work load involved in a survey of this type in Madras city and the data regarding the aged available from the 1961 and 1971 Censuses, it was estimated that a sample of the order of 2000 aged persons selected from about 200 villages may be adequate to provide estimates at the State level on each of the objectives of the study.
The socio-economic unit of a village is a household, the average size of which is around 5 (4.6 in 1971). The average size of a village, as per the 1971 Census, was 1,826. On the average, a village, therefore, comprised around 376 households and contained about 110 aged persons. For administrative purposes, continguous villages are grouped into taluks and these taluks are further grouped into thirteen districts, excluding the city of Madras which itself is a district, the only totally urban district. With the creation of the State Planning Commission, planning in the state has been decentralised to the district levels. Hence it was decided to extend the survey to all the districts.
A stratified two-stage area sample was selected, villages being the first stage units and households having at least one aged person the second stage units. The sample villages were selected with probability proportional to their population sizes and within each sampled village, a systematic sample of households was selected for the survey from among those containing at least one aged person. The sample was selected in the form of two independent sub-samples of 100 villages each to enable easy estimation of sampling and non-sampling errors.
For the first stage sample, the list of the 15,735 villages in Tamil Nadu state compiled by the 1971 Census was used. For the second stage sample, the Research Assistants compiled a list of households during their visits to the villages for the survey.
Selection of Villages
Each district was treated as a stratum except Nilgiris and Kanyakumari which were merged with Coimbatore and Tirunelveli, respectively because individually they were too small districts to merit any sampling. Thus the thirteen districts became eleven strata and the taluks within the strata were arranged by geographical contiguity. Within the arranged taluks, the villages were arranged as per the Census list. The total sample size of 200 villages was allocated to the strata in proportion to the number of inhabited villages in them. A circular systematic sample of villages was selected in each stratum with two independent random starts for each stratum.
Second Stage Sampling Design
An up-to-date, complete lists of all the households in the villages were prepared by the Research Assistants to identify households having at least one aged person.
Selection of Households
From the list of households having at least one aged person, one in eleven households was selected in a circular systematic manner. The sampling interval of eleven was same for all the villages. It was so fixed as to ensure a self – weighting design. All the elderly persons in the sampled households formed the study sample.
In all, 18,400 households with at least one aged person were identified from among the 77,317 households in the villages. Most of the households had only one elderly person; 1973 households had two older persons, 30 households had three, and 4 households had four. In all, 1941 older persons aged 60 and above were selected: 1,004 men and 937 women, of which 200 men and 138 women could not be interviewed, and 2 men and 1 woman refused. Two interviews were partial (one man and one woman). Thus, the final sample was 1,598 : 801 men and 797 women.
Non - Contacts
The non - contacts were those who had gone out of the village (a) to their children or other relations to attend to marriage, death, puberty, birth and other ceremonies, or (b) to participate in religious functions, or (c) to attend to matters connected with work, or village or household.
The number of non-contacts would have been much less but for the nature of data collection with a pre-determined time schedule for the entire state. The research team was on the move continuously. After the completion of work in a particular village they proceeded to the next village after waiting for a reasonable time for the selected persons, who were not available earlier. Once they left a village, they never returned to that place as it would have cost the project heavily in terms of time and money.
Thirty four aged persons (16 men and 18 women) were interviewed with the help of proxies: 22 were deaf, 4 paralytic, 3 mentally ill, 2 dumb, one deaf and mute, one giddy, and one who ‘could not understand’ anything. A proxy was one who looked after the subject (subject’s spouse, child or any other member of the household) and who knew the subject intimately.
The following steps were adopted to control non-sampling errors: training of investigators, detailed written instructions to investigators, supervised field work, complete scrutiny of all schedules and immediate rectification of mistakes, if any.
The teams each comprising one Research Supervisor and four Research Assistants collected the data. All preliminary arrangements such as contacting officials for help in the villages and their accommodation were gone into, prior to their departure, by the project office at Madras. So also, a complete route chart of all the villages was made in advance.
To successfully complete the tour, two cars were pressed into use. Keeping the vehicles at the disposal of the teams was mainly to facilitate quick movement from village to village in order to complete the data collection within the time schedule. But this was not to be, owing to many unforeseen circumstances experienced in the villages. To save fuel, often the shortest route was taken. But this proved to be a costly affair, because roads were either badly maintained or were mere foot paths cutting across fields. Added to this, the hamlets were scattered. In some villages, the distance between clusters of households was around 20 kilometres. In these places, the research personnel had to resort to either walking or cycling. Some regions were hilly. Mannalur, which lies in Dindugul taluk of Madurai district, is surrounded by coffee, cocoa and tea estates; they were 116 in number, and each estate had living quarters for those employed by it. Similarly, Kottaramadugu is on one side of the hill and its extended hamlet on the other side.
Another handicap was the names of the villages. Often the popular name of the village was different from the official name, causing difficulties in location. Pudur was an example of misidentification. There being two Pudurs officially, the village we required was commonly known by the name Kondampalli.
Throughout the tour, the teams found their accommodation mainly in nearby travellers’ bungalows, block development offices, chatrams, temple devasthanam cottages, schools, panchayat buildings, lodges and even private houses. The research teams avoided staying at the Primary Health Centres, for fear of being considered as visiting family planning campaigners.
In most of the villages, food was a problem. As far as possible, the teams made use of the way side hotels and ate whatever food was available. Many a time they had to contend with snacks and tea or coffee. There were some villages where food was not available and the teams had to travel anywhere from eleven to twenty kilometres to get some food. At times, the teams were hosted by the villagers.
General Reception in Villages
The entry of the team into a village made the people curious and they were all agog to know the reason for the visit. It gave rise to assumptions, fears and hopes. Most of the officials, particularly village munsiffs, whom the teams contacted with regard to the field work, were very co-operative, though in most of the villages the officials were busy with rice procurement and levy. But the experience with village presidents was varied. Some were hospitable, while others were not.
In one village, the 69-year old munsiff helped even in listing, whereas in another village the president, after listening to all the explanations of the work the team would be doing, just went off, without offering any help. Here the research team encountered difficulty both in work and food.
Some villages took the team to be people visiting relatives. But when they asked for the village munsiff, their curiosity was aroused. In most of the villages, after having contacted the village munsiff, the karnam or the panchayat president and explaining the objectives of the study, the teams were accepted and allowed to complete the work. Unless the village officials and leaders were met, co-operation was difficult.
Interestingly, the reception in a village also depended on the size of the village. In smaller villages, the people were far more friendly than those in large villages. The reception at Kombankulam was most memorable. The villagers on hearing that the team was going to the village the next day made arrangements to receive them in the “Chavadi”. A table and some chairs were arranged there and refreshing tender coconut water was served. The supervisor was garlanded and crackers were bursted. Not having had such a warm welcome in any village till then, it was indeed a very pleasant surprise for the research team. For a moment, the team was nonplussed. The supervisor thanked the villagers on behalf of the team and expressed gratitude for the warmest welcome. Petitions regarding the amenities the village needed were then handed over to the team. But the supervisor made it clear that the team had gone there expressly to collect information on the aged persons and beyond handing over the petitions to the concerned authorities, the team would not be able to do anything. The work in that village was done in a spirit of cordiality and the team left with regret that on their part there was nothing they could give the villagers in return for their generous hospitality.
In another village, the team experienced something hitherto unknown. One of the Research Assistants was misunderstood while interviewing a widow. The misunderstood question was “Do you agree or disagree with the statement that on the whole, I am satisfied with what I have accomplished in life”. She accused that knowing she was a widow, the question should not have been asked, because the Tamil translation of “life” had reference to marital life. This she felt was a slur on her character and took offence. Within a short time, she mustered her neighbours and relatives numbering about 50 and went to the panchayat union office to complain against the Research Assistant. All the members of the research team were summoned and the complaint was discussed. The elderly woman was fully convinced of the implication of the question. She finally co-operated in completing the interview.
In some villages, the people thought that the teams had gone for rice procurement and so criticised the procurement policy of the government. In some villages, the people blamed the research team for price increase. They remarked that every day some officer went to take census. But no steps had been taken to curb the pricerise. In certain places, people remarked, “There is no water for drinking. But they have come for enumeration”. “They cannot bring down the prices for those who live, but they want to ask unnecessary questions to those who are going to die”. But in some other villages, the reception was different. In one village, the people commended the government for sanctioning money for drought relief, “The government has done many good things for the people. Now the government is going to help the old people”. In some villages the complaints were against the “eye camps” and “family planning operations”.
In some villages, the young persons teased the older people by saying that the government was going to take all of them to be killed since they were useless or that they were going to be recruited to offer as human sacrifice for building bridges. In one village, when a Research Assistant was talking to a group of young men, an older man on hearing the conversation, wanted to know what the former was doing, to which the others shouted at him, “You keep quiet, you don’t know anything”. After the others had gone away, the elderly man said: “You tell me what information you want and I will give it to you. Was I born earlier or they?”.
In some places, people thought that listing of households was done to issue ration cards, and hence increased the number of households in a dwelling. In some other places, they thought that listing was done with regard to house tax and so the number of households was reduced. In some instances, people were under the impression that the listing was done for giving old age pension, and as a result, the under-aged became 60 and above. In contrast, in some cases, the persons who were 60 and above mentioned the age as below 60 merely out of fear because of the rumours that the government wanted to get rid of all the old people by putting them in institutions or by giving some injections.
In one village, the team was told that the person who figured in the sample had gone out of the village, but would be back in the evening. The Research Assistant waited for him. But on seeing the Research Assistant, he ran away thinking that he had gone there to force him for “family planning operation”.
Getting the husband’s name is an art by itself in our villages. Women seldom utter the name of their husbands. In one case, the name was got in this manner.
Q. What is your husband’s name?
A. How can I mention my husband’s name? It is the name of the twin gods.
Q. You mean Rama and Lakshmana?
A. Yes, it is the first name you mentioned.
Q. Oh! Is it Raman?
A. But you must add ‘swami’ to it.
Q. Is it Ramaswami?
Older people often mixed up the names of the children living outside the house. There was a tendency to omit the names of daughters who were given in marriage. They said after marriage the girls did not belong to their houses.
Determination of Age
Determination of the age of the elderly was not an easy task in many instances. Some, of course, knew their date of birth correctly. Many had their horoscopes or astrological charts. Some interesting counter questions to the investigators were: “You are an educated person. Don’t you know my age more accurately than I do?”, “Can’t you make out my age by looking at my face.’’ Some even became angry because of the inability of the Research Assistants to determine their age. For old persons who were not sure of their age, many methods had to be resorted to. When the ages of contemporaries were known, the ages of the respondents were fixed by finding out whether they were born more or less during the same period of birth of the contemporaries, if they were younger or older by how many years, and the like. Important milestones in the lives of individuals like the age of puberty (or coming of age) of women, age at marriage, age at the birth of the first child, grandchild or great grandchild, and age at which one lost the spouse. The supportive details were the ages of children and sometimes grandchildren. Important landmarks in the history of the village and neighbourhood like flood, famine and major festivals that occurred once in certain years were also used to determine the age of the elderly. Between elderly men and women, more difficulties were experienced in determining the age of the latter as many came to the villages after marriage, thus missing the valuable corroborative data from the villagers unlike most men who were in the villages since birth. Senior most elders, village officials and other better-informed or knowledgeable people were helpful in determining the age of the elderly persons. The National Malaria Eradication Programme records were also helpful in cross-verification. Relatives and neighbours around, though they were a hindrance for the interview, were helpful in determining the age of the elderly.
Courtesy to the Elderly
It is a customary practice not to go empty handed when one visits a family with young children or elderly persons. The Research Assistants, therefore, carried fruits, sweets, pan (betel leaf, areca nut and tobacco), and flowers at the time of interview depending on the age, sex and marital status of the elderly respondents. This gesture of good will was highly appreciated by the elders and others in the villages.
Brief Profile of the Aged Interviewed
Eighty five per cent of the aged interviewed were Tamils, twelve per cent Telugu-speaking and two percent Kannada-speaking. Others were Marathis, Malayalis and others. Ninety five per cent were Hindus and 3 per cent Muslims. Others were Christians barring one Jain. Twenty per cent of the elderly interviewed belonged to Scheduled Castes. Three-fourths (73 per cent) were illiterates: 93 per cent women and 53 percent men. Twenty per cent were literates without schooling or had primary school education: 38 per cent men and 6 percent women. Slightly more than 3 per cent were middle school educated and almost all of them were men. The high school and college educated were slightly more than one per cent, women were negligible among them.
your articles to
to publish in our website.
Our Other Websites
Receive email updates on the new books & offers
for the subjects of interest to you.