A case of Kanpur
The Indian family has traditionally provided natural social security to the old people. However, in more recent times, the traditional role of the family is being shared by institutions such as old age homes. It is often assumed, and sometimes argued, that the absence of familial care and surroundings induce feelings of loneliness among the residents of old age homes. This study, conducted in an old age home in Kanpur, seeks to understand the experience of loneliness. This is examined with reference to the concepts of ‘social loneliness’ and ‘desolation’ advanced by Weiss and Townsend respectively. The phenomenon is also examined vis-à-vis the activity theory of ageing, which states that engaging in activities help the elderly in overcoming loneliness, improves their health and augments self-esteem. Contrary to expectations, the findings suggest that the residents in this particular old age home do not experience loneliness. This is partly because they try to keep themselves busy by taking up various activities. Other reasons have to do with regular familial contact and the nature of the old age home, which invokes Hindu scriptures to emphasise the spiritual duties of the elderly.
The paper examines the extent of loneliness felt by the residents of an old age home in India where the family has always provided care and comfort to the elderly. A set of cultural norms backed by Hindu religious ideals has ensured the proper care of the elderly by the younger generation. It is often assumed that the absence of such a care system in old age homes may cause feelings of loneliness and depression among the residents. The paper, which is based on a study I conducted in an old age home of Kanpur city in India, seeks to find out whether the loss of traditional social care does indeed create loneliness and depression among the elderly. In the course of the paper I examine a few of the concepts involving loneliness such as social isolation and desolation and seek to find out whether the experience of loneliness of the residents of old age home can be understood within these conceptual frameworks. I also look the activity theory of ageing, which links engagement in activities with physical and mental health and self-esteem of the elderly.
Indian society provides a congenial set of conditions for a physically comfortable and emotionally satisfying old age. The extended family, which is the corner stone of Indian social system, strong kinship ties and religious values extolling the virtues of old people have, for generations, acted as the natural social security for old people (D’Souza 1982). The elderly never had to seek care and service outside the family and kinship group. This social security of the elderly flowed from their superior status in the family and by virtue of the fact the elderly parents enjoyed considerable authority and control in family matters, particularly over family property. This ensured their dominance in the family, and in turn, the children had to take care of their ageing parents as an obligation and as a sign of reverence.
But all this is changing. There has been a marked change in the treatment of the elderly compared to earlier periods. Many of the recent studies emphasise the transition in the role and status of the elderly Indians from pre-industrial society to the existing industrial social order (D’Souza 1982, Gangrade 1999, Khan 1999, Singh 1999). Their main argument is that the elderly enjoyed a much higher status in pre-industrial society marked by group oriented social interaction, agricultural mode of production, extended family system, kinship and patriarchal authority. This, they contrast with the low position of the aged in the new industrial social order of India, affected by the processes of change such as modernisation,...