Special Articles / T.K. Nair / Older People in Rural Tamilnadu
Isolated older men and women are classified under four categories : those who live by themselves, those who had no visitor or human contact, those who are often alone, irrespective of their living arrangement, and those who have no surviving relative (wife or husband, son or daughter, brother or sister, or any other relative).
One of every six older persons is living alone. Between older men and women, the variation is very high. One in four older women is living alone against one in fourteen older men. For every elderly man living by himself there are more than three elderly women in isolation. The urban study of the aged in Madras city (Nair, 1972) showed that only three per cent were living alone.
Though many older men and women live alone, there was not a single person without human contact the previous day of the interview. The preponderous majority had visitors and other human contact. They are seven in ten of the aged living alone. More of them are older women. Visitors mitigate the isolation of the older people, devoid of which life in the last life cycle would be highly unpleasant. In the village society, neighbours and friends often provide the much needed human contact either through visits or casual pleasantries. They are as important as children and other relatives in the mitigation of the isolated living of the elderly. Days seldom pass by without such social visits and emotionally satisfying enquiries. More than three-fourths of the elderly had at least a visitor the previous day. However, those who had no visitor the previous day were substantial, that is, a fourth of those who live alone. More older men say that they had no visitor the previous day compared with the older women. Apart from the visitors, all the older men who live alone had talked to somebody; so also almost all the elderly women (94 per cent).
Most of the elderly men and women, irrespective of the fact that many are living by themselves, have close family contact. They are either living with children and relations or have seen a child, sibling or other relative during the past week. Those who are isolated from recent family contact are only one in hundred older men and three in hundred older women. Only one elderly man and two women are in desolation without any surviving relative.
Isolated living arrangement and aloneness are significant problems concerning a substantial number of elderly men and women in our villages. Whatever be the living arrangement (live alone or living with others) and visiting patterns of and contact with relations, friends and neighbours, a substantial proportion of the older people report that they are often alone. They are more than a fourth, and exceed those who say that they are never alone. Aloneness is more problematic for women than men. For every two in ten older men who are often alone, there are three older women.
Profile of the Aged Who Live Alone
Who are the aged who live alone? Why do they live alone? The majority of the isolated elderly are women. Almost all of them who live alone are widowed, divorced and separated. Eight of them who live alone are married too– seven men and one woman. Three are single–two men and one woman. More among the eighty-year old elderly persons live alone than among those in the other age-groups. While a fifth of the older men and women past eighty live by themselves, only a seventh in the seventies and a sixth in the sixties live alone. The proportion of older women in the most advanced age-group living by themselves is more than twice as high as that of the older men of that age. The childless older people are more likely to live alone than those with one or two children who in turn are more likely to be alone than those with three or more children. This is equally true of older men and women. Thus, women more than men, the older more than the younger, the childless more than those with children, and the employed more than the retired are likely to live alone. They, in all probability, will be widows and widowers.
Seven in ten of the elderly living in isolation have surviving children. More are men, Two in five have three or more children. Only a negligible number of the aged are without any surviving relations–one man and two women. More than three-fourths of the isolated older men and women with children have at least a son and more than a half have two or more sons.
Migration of sons to the places of employment, separation of daughters after marriage, difficulty to live with sons due to adjustmental problems with the daughters-in-law because of the latter’s ill-treatment or the older women’s non-acceptance of the daughter-in-law, misunderstanding or enmity over division of property or property income, and poverty may be the reasons for the isolated living of the older men and women. Rejection by children and other relatives, reluctance of the elderly from becoming a burden to the children or relations, and preference for independent living also explain the isolation of the aged.
The children of all the older men and women who live alone are married. Nearly a fifth of them have a child in the same dwelling or compound. More of them are women. The elderly, due to one or more of the reasons described earlier, cook, eat and sleep separately. But most of them may be in close contact with children and grandchildren. In all, nearly two-thirds of the older people who live by themselves are in close proximity with their children, not exceeding ten minutes distance. Older women live nearer to their children than older men. At the same time, a fifth of the isolated elderly are at a distance of more than an hour from their children, and older men are greater in proportion than older women.
Though all older people who live alone do not have surviving children, almost all the childless have a sibling or other relative. Those who are bereft of all relations are negligible. The relations often compensate the lack of children as well as the infrequent contact with them.
A half of the isolated elderly fathers and mothers have seen a child within twenty four hours prior to the interview. More older men than women saw a child recently. It is striking to note that the proportion of older women reporting recent contact with a child is much lesser than that living in close proximity to their children. But this difference is not seen among older men. A third of the older men and women without children or who are not in contact with children for at least a week have been compensated with the contact with other relatives. Elderly women are in a slightly advantageous position than men in this regard. Most of the aged in isolation have had recent family contact. Nonetheless, one in nine isolated old persons is devoid of recent family contact or without any surviving relative.
It has already been seen that living with spouse, children, other relatives or others does not mean that the aged are in the company of others. A sizeable proportion of elderly men and women are often alone. Who are the persons who are often alone? What are their characteristics? More older women than men are often alone. Those who report that they are often alone are most likely to be men and women living alone and least likely to be widowers living with their children. Among elderly women, the widows who live with their children and the married who live with their husbands only are the least likely to report that they are often alone. Even among elderly men, fewer widowed, divorced and single who live with others, and married who live with their wives only say that they are often alone. The older men and women, who are often alone, living with children or others are more among the married than the widowed, separated and single. Isolated living is directly related to the situation of being alone often. Otherwise, the explanation to aloneness is not to be found in marital status. Living with husband or wife per se does not mean being together. When the husband or wife works, one may be left alone. But that may not explain the reverse of the normally expected pattern of relationship between marital status and aloneness. Constant togetherness among married couples is not a common practice in Indian families and more so in the villages, unless one is ailing. Even in that circumstance, the wife spends more time with the husband while the opposite is not usual, so the presence of wife or husband in the house need not mean frequent companionship. When elderly people live with children or other relations, the time the grandchildren or other younger people spend with the elders would influence the extent of aloneness. Older men and women sitting by themselves in a corner of the house doing nothing, without any one around to talk to, are not an uncommon sight in many of the households. The neglect and lack of companionship from the members of the household are evident from the data on how often the older men and women are alone.
Despite exceptions, higher the level of incapacity greater is the likelihood of the older person being often alone. Greater the incapacity greater is the restriction on moving outdoors and the need for supportive service from members of the household. Earlier we have seen that living with others does not necessarily mean that the problem of aloneness is non-existent or negligible among the elderly. From 16 to 35 per cent of the aged who live with spouse, children and others are often alone. With greater incapacity the feeling of aloneness will become more and more accentuated. It is seen that the more restricted one’s life becomes the more likely is he or she to feel the absence of frequent human company and care in old age, and hence more are reporting aloneness often.
One accompaniment of old age is increase in free time. Nearly two-fifths of the older men and far more than a half of the older women say that they are free the whole day. And another more than a quarter of the elderly men and women are free a half day.
Elderly men are more likely than elderly women to have fewer hours of free time. Availability of free time depends mainly on the employment status and the pattern of activities of the older people. The aged who are in employment or are engaged in activities meaningful to them will have less or no free time. Nearly nine in ten retired men and eight in ten retired women say that they are free the entire day. The employed who report that the whole day is free for them are from among those who work very few hours a day and those who are engaged in unpaid family work.
With a large number of older people having considerable free time, many may experience boredom. More than a third of the elderly feel that time often passes slowly for them. With varying degrees three quarters of the elderly men and women experience boredom, extreme to occasional.
More elderly women than men are severely bored. For one in four older persons, boredom is not at all a problem. There is high association between boredom and the availability of free time. The more free time one has the more likely is he or she to feel bored. Boredom is generally activity-related. The extent of free time is not the sole determinant of boredom, though it may be a fair indicator of the degree of boredom. Boredom is a response to certain situations like incapacity, retirement, surplus time and absence of meaningful activities. Human contact and companionship may mitigate the feeling of boredom to some extent, but they cannot supplant it. On the other hand, isolation can accentuate the severity of boredom.
Psychological literature on ageing highlights the high correlation between loneliness and ageing. Three-quarters of the older people are lonely often or occasionally and three in ten are extremely lonely. More elderly women feel more lonely than older men. Older women in extreme loneliness are in excess of older men in that condition by 10 per cent.
Loneliness is associated significantly with the marital status of the elderly. The widowed, divorced and separated are more likely to be lonely than the married. The proportion of the latter who are often lonely is only slightly greater than a half of the former reporting extreme loneliness. There is no variation in the intensity of loneliness between widows and widowers.
We have already seen that more older women than men are lonely and the widowed are more lonely than the married. The death of husband or wife causes a vacuum which is never filled. Though children and grandchildren may compensate the feeling of loneliness to some extent by living with or near the older people or by frequent visits, the void caused by the loss of spouse is beyond substitution for most people, and more so for women. Some men, if they are not very old, could remarry, butnot women. Further women are more husband-centered than men who have a variety of social relations.
Living arrangement has a direct bearing on one’s feeling of loneliness. The older people living alone are more likely to be lonely than those living with spouse, children or others. One in two of the older people living alone is often lonely as against one in four living with spouse or children, and one in three living with other relatives and others. Almost all the older people who live alone are widows and widowers. Widowhood and physical isolation, in combination, tend to cause severe loneliness among the aged. Loneliness is a chief characteristic of those who live alone in sharp contrast to those who live with spouse or children. Among them again, the contact with children will make a positive difference. More of the physically isolated elderly who are extremely lonely are the childless and those who have not seen a child recently. Older men and women exhibit significant difference. For the widowed and isolated women, the contact with a child living away from them does not make significant change in the feeling of loneliness unlike elderly men. Lack of children and absence of recent contact with children have profound impact on the physically segregated old men.
The association between loneliness and incapacity is definite and direct. The greater the incapacity the more intense is the feeling of loneliness. The proportion of the highly incapacitated elderly reporting severe loneliness is three and a half times as high as the proportion with no incapacity. Almost all the severely incapacitated elderly experience loneliness. With the decline in the capacity for self-care, the older people who are never lonely also steadily decline.
Decline in Village Roles
The changing role of the older people in caste and community affairs, and the decline in authority of the aged have aroused considerable sociological interest. This study has probed into this aspect only in a superficial manner by asking the older men whether people of the village seek their advice on different matters and whether they hold any position in the village panchayat. Only about a fifth (18 per cent) of the elderly men report that they are approached for help and advice by the villagers. Conflicts between factions, family feuds and problems, work related matters, religious festivals and medical problems are the main issues on which the elderly are consulted by the villagers. Only ten older men are still members of village panchayats.
Ageing brings about changes in health functioning, work participation and economic well-being and the trend is often downward. These have been discussed earlier. But what changes do take place to the isolated, the alienated, the lonely and the bored as they grow older? Analysis of these changes is a partial effort to test the disengagement theory of Cumming and Henry (1961) which states that ageing is a process of “inevitable mutual withdrawal or disengagement, resulting in decreased interaction between the aging person and others in the social system he belongs to……His withdrawal may be accompanied from the outset, by a preoccupation with himself; certain institutions in society may make this withdrawal easy for him”. More specifically, the questions we would like to raise are as follows. Do the social participation of the aged decrease with age? Do more and more people live separately as they grow older and older? Are more and more of them alienated from family and social contact? Does the psychological restriction of life space increase as they grow older as indicated by aloneness, loneliness, boredom and age-identification ? Does optimism grow or lesson as one grows old?
The living arrangement data do not yield any evidence to show that the living arrangement of the elderly is related to age. It is, therefore, quite natural to find inconsistency in the change of proportions of older people living alone from the youngest to the oldest age group. The trend, if any, is cyclical. Though the proportion of older people living alone in the eighties is the highest in comparison with the older people in the other age groups, it would be erroneous to infer significant association between isolated living and ageing as the difference in proportions between the physically isolated elderly in the youngest age-group of 60-64 years and in the advanced age group of 80 and above is only marginal. On further analysis of the non-incapacitated elderly living alone (that is, those with 0 incapacity score), no association between age and segregated living is seen.
The number of old persons without surviving relatives or recent family contact is at the first instance a few, and the proportion of this small number of older people also does not show definite change with age. So also, there is not even a single old person without human contact the previous day.
In contrast to living arrangement, activities, and family and social contact, the pre-occupation of the older people with self reveals almost the opposite pattern as people get older and older. The psychological restriction of life space as measured by aloneness and boredom increases consistently with age. The older the person is the more likely is he or she to be often alone or to experience slow passage of time. This is independent of the level of incapacity though one’s state of boredom and aloneness are influenced significantly by incapacity. The proportion of all elderly persons as well as the non-incapacitated among them who experience aloneness and boredom more than doubles between the ages 60-64, and 75 and above. But loneliness does not offer conclusive evidence like aloneness and boredom to relate it as an inalienable part of the ageing process. Three-fourths of all the older people are lonely. With change in age, the proportion reporting loneliness increases from 70 in the 60-64 age group to 86 in the 75-79 age cohort, but decreases substantially in the eighties. Further, the proportions of older people in the age-groups 65-69, 70-74, and 80 and above reporting loneliness do not differ significantly. The distribution of widows and other unmarried women in different age-groups expressing loneliness does not show any progressive change of proportions with age. If loneliness were to be a direct concomitant of ageing, the proportion of these elderly women should markedly increase with age. But it is not so. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that the widowed and other unmarried women in the seventies and eighties are more lonely than those in the sixties. The exclusion of the older persons with incapacity from the elderly who are often or sometimes lonely also points to the same conclusion. If growing old were to be accompanied by increasing loneliness, then the older people who are completely free of any incapacity should increase in proportion as they grow older and older. The data, on the other hand, show a contrary trend.
Life without problems is an impossibility. Older people do have many problems. But the feeling of satisfaction with one’s earlier life and achievements could be a strong compensating factor in mitigating the problems, at least psychologically. The older men and women were asked whether they were on the whole satisfied with what they had accomplished in life. Quite significantly, four in five of the aged are satisfied with their accomplishments in life. Though more elderly men than women feel so, satisfaction with life is expressed by both men and women in large numbers (83 per cent men and 76 per cent women). With failing health, increased boredom, more aloneness and other problems, the feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment does not falter with age. As one grows older, the more likely is he or she to be optimistic in life.
In rural Tamilnadu, old age seems to set in at a very early stage in life. This perhaps is characteristic of the entire Indian society where in the forties are viewed as the beginning of old age. More than nine in ten elderly men and women feel that they are old or elderly. Even in the youngest age-group of 60-64, 84 per cent say that they are old or elderly. Older people who consider themselves middle aged decrease drastically with age. None of the old men and women who are past seventy five think that they are middle aged.
In conclusion, self pre-occupation partly increases with age and partly does not. Isolation from family, either in terms of living arrangement or in terms of contact, does not exhibit a functional relationship with age. None are alienated from human contact. Involvement in activities does not decrease with age and any decrease may be due to incapacity rather than growing old. Loneliness is not accentuated by ageing, but is definitely by widowhood and incapacity. Optimism does not diminish with age; it, on the other hand, increases. Our data, thus, give evidence to disengagement only to a negligible extent.
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