The world is moving fast towards an ageing society. Life expectancy is increasing. In developed countries, those born in 2000 and later can reasonably hope to live for 100 years. That means rising numbers of grandparents and great-grandparents. In a survey published in 2009 it was revealed that more than 90 per cent of retirees in the US were grandparents, and half of them would become great-grandparents.
The phenomenon is being witnessed even in developing countries, India included. It will mean more decades of active life and the need for adjustments among people with far greater age differences in the family and outside. For senior citizens it could also imply greater isolation, and a sense of neglect, uselessness and increased sensitivity, particularly in societies that accept nuclear families or those moving fast to adopt the same social pattern.
In a functional joint family system one would like to visualise this age advantage as a great chance to witness an abundance of love and affection being exchanged among generations.
People are searching for ways and means to ensure generational harmony in the changed conditions that otherwise may result in long years of the later life-span being spent in considerable misery.
The one aspect that could be handled at the policy level is to provide opportunities and prepare the elderly to remain active for more years by acquiring new skills or by renewing the skills used during their regular active life. The tougher aspect is to respond to their emotional requirements of bonding with the family, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In India, so much was expected to be learnt from the grandparents in a joint family system. In the changed conditions, one often finds the elderly praising the pace of learning acquisition of the young and admitting that they are learning from their grandchildren.
It is a general experience shared by the elderly that they have learnt the use of cellphones, computers and other gadgets from their grandchildren, their own children being too busy with their daily business.
It is also an acknowledged fact that grandchildren like imparting skills and awareness to the elderly. They value their appreciation and listen to them with far greater attention and interest than to their own parents.
Grandparents are great stress-busters. Adolescents are usually withdrawn and for a couple of years remain convinced that only ‘friends’ understand them.
Apart from the age transition, the stress and strain caused by the way education is imparted and attainments tested contribute to this isolation of the young from parents, who also get stressed and are unable to handle such situations.
On such occasions, interactions with grandparents open up a wider vision of life, instances of handling tough situations and several other inputs that instill motivation to greater self-confidence to overcome the perceived problems and hurdles. And a lovable mutual caring system takes shape.
This concept of reciprocal learning needs to be appreciated and internalised. The idea of ‘learning together’ takes shape when the elderly acknowledge that lifelong learning continuously upgrades the quality of life and that the young are equipped to present to them the realities of today’s world, which are far different from what they experienced.
It will equip them for a more informed interaction. Age-care has already found place in the curricula of school education, though many find the emphasis inadequate.
At the policy level, several initiatives are often listed in terms of facilities being provided to the senior citizens. The entire edifice could be upgraded and made more effective if the need to provide learning opportunities through appropriate programmes is formalised. Its curriculum shall include basics of skills and knowledge required for human interaction between grandparents and children.
In addition, provisions for skill-orientation in schools and other centres could also be made. It is essential to boost self-image on both sides, leading to an affectionate generational relationship.