2020 has been a year of immense learning for policymakers across the globe. As Covid-19 unfolded, new social, political, healthcare, and economic challenges came to the forefront. W.r.t healthcare challenges, older adults remained disproportionately affected.1 The problems of the old have not received adequate attention in a young country like India. India is home to 134 million older people and by 2026, this number is expected to rise to 173 million.2 The share of people above 60 years of age in India’s population stands at nearly 10% today and is rapidly growing.3 As fertility rates fall and a large proportion of the population ages, policymakers will increasingly face new challenges in terms of delivery of healthcare.
The government of India launched the National Programme for the Health Care of Elderly (NPHCE) in 2010-11.4 The NPHCE recognizes the deficiencies of the primary healthcare system and its inability to meet the long-term care needs of older people. It also recognizes the importance of the availability of care closer to the place of residence for older people given high levels of disability. Nevertheless, the policy limits healthcare provision for older people mainly to the existing healthcare settings. The proposal for home visits by trained healthcare workers is constrained by limited personnel. Besides, the regional diversity in demographics, economics, socio-politics is vast enough to call in question a universal policy solution. This clearly calls for policy debate on how to get effective solutions in place before the health of older adults turns from being a problem to a crisis. A decentralized policy option with an underlying principle of intergenerational solidarity is more likely to be efficient. A rural community-based, women-led, low-cost model, like the ones facilitated by Self-Help Groups (SHGs), can potentially be integrated with long-term healthcare services. We examine the healthcare needs of older people in India through the lens of demography and propose utilizing India’s social capital, in form of Self Help Groups (SHGs), to deliver significant components of healthcare to older adults.
Key demographic trends in relation to healthy ageing in India
The policy challenges of the changing demographic structure of the world vary sharply between regions. For more affluent countries, where the problem of population ageing was detected earlier and social security nets were put in place, the key challenge remains allocation of resources fairly between and within generations. For the rapidly ageing developing regions though, resources are scarcer and institutions have a shorter time frame to adapt to the changing population pyramid. India is a case in point.
“India has traditionally relied on multigenerational families to provide for the needs of older people.”5 Sathyanarayana et al draw attention to the increasing reversal of this trend. Particularly, rural and illiterate elderly women are likely to age alone, raising concerns about policy responses for their welfare.6 Also, analysis of morbidity shows an expansion of morbidity with ageing, starting as early as 45 years of age.
Changing Living Arrangements
The Census (2011) showed that three out of four elderly people reside in rural areas. However, most of the health infrastructure is situated in urban areas.7 This creates a barrier to healthcare access for older adults. Sathyanarayana et al (2014) compared data from two National Family Health Surveys – first (1992-1993) and third (2005-2006). The proportion of single-member older adult households went from 2 percent to 5 percent and two member households with at least one older adult went up from 8 percent to 15 percent. Thus, more older persons are living alone or with a single caregiver. This increase accompanies a reduced proportion of total households with older adult members, which means that a lesser proportion of older people live with their family. The percentage of older adults living alone has gone up from 2.6 to 5 percent; with wide regional disparities. These trends indicate a disintegration of the multigenerational household, the legally obligated care-providers for older people in the country.8 A legal obligation to care falls short of addressing the capacity to care for the family. The care providers of old people are part of the 22.5 percent of the population living on less than 1.90 dollars a day.9 Financial constraints on providing long term care to older adults is significant. Moreover, India’s labour market is predominantly informal. The sector lacks comprehensive social security nets like old-age pensions and job security, which restricts time and finances for care provision. With a high prevalence of unskilled, high physical intensity, low-paying jobs, both the caregiver and the elderly workforce become disadvantaged in the present and the future. This also creates a vicious cycle of poor health and unhealthy ageing. Healthcare policies designed for rural areas, with a specific focus on the marginalized social classes, will thus be more helpful especially given the expansion of morbidity with ageing.
Expansion of morbidity
Arokiasamy and Yadav draw attention to the exceptional rise in the non-communicable disease prevalence in older adults.10 Prina et al (2020) corroborate these findings with their assessment of Disability Free Life Expectancy.11 The lowest estimates for India were 11.5 years in men and 11.7 years in women. “With the concomitant increase in life expectancy at age 60 to 16.7 and 18.9 years for males and females respectively, older adults will thus live longer with chronic diseases”.12 The demographers also highlight early onset of morbidity, soon after 44 years of age.
While developed countries have seen a clear shift from infectious to chronic diseases, India faces a dual burden of disease.13 The pattern is reflected in the older adults’ disease patterns too, with significant morbidity associated with infectious diseases and their sequelae. In the face of high morbidity, questions about availability, affordability, and access to long-term care services for older adults in India beg discussion.
Availability, access, and affordability of healthcare in India
In addition to physical barriers to healthcare access, mobility issues and distance to the healthcare system; older adults in India face significant social barriers. As Dey et al highlight in their study, gender, religion, caste, socioeconomic status, stigma impede access to healthcare for older adults.14 While availability and quality of care vary widely among regions; older people, in general, receive less care commensurate to their level of morbidity even where available. Affordability of healthcare was an additional access barrier. With only 15 percent of the population covered under insurance, resulting in 62 percent expenditure on health coming from out of pocket payments.15 Such over-reliance on out of pocket payments creates impediments for access to quality healthcare, especially for the marginalised sections of communities. Let’s take the health of older women for instance. ‘Feminization of the older population’ is a prevalent phenomenon across the globe. This is more apparent in rural India. The rate of homebound older people is approximately 70 per 1000 persons in India, and even higher for women.16 Despite reporting worse health, older women are less likely to be hospitalized. A patriarchal society, accumulation of malnutrition, and life-long poverty compounded by high morbidity pose challenges to healthy ageing of Indian women.
While many have to continue working in their old age, their incomes remain meagre. One in three elderly people lives below the poverty line, with another one living just above the cut-off of the poverty line.17 Social security in India is inadequate. The state pension scheme is not universal. Even among expected beneficiaries, less than 10 percent receive assistance.18 Moreover, rural to urban migration of youth leaves older parents more vulnerable. As Sinha and Batniji point out, “At times of illness, people on low-incomes in general often respond by foregoing their children’s education, selling limited assets (including those used to make a living), borrowing from informal sources at exorbitant rates, or foregoing medical treatment.”19 An average rural older adult can thus expect to live with higher morbidity and multiple chronic conditions miles away from quality healthcare, which also happens to be out of her budget.
Trends in Policy Response to Ageing in India
India first formulated a National Policy for Older Persons in 1999.20 The NPOP aims to ensure healthcare, financial, and social well-being of older people. It also focuses on the feminization of ageing and the importance of intergenerational solidarity. It puts the onus on individuals and families to ensure “healthy” ageing with minimal state intervention. While the policy document quotes the changing demographic structure to emphasize the importance of population ageing, it fails to look beyond aggregate numbers or take into account major factors which interact with demography and shape the experience of ageing.
The policy attributes challenges of ageing to the breakdown of families. The homogenization of ageing and its challenges forecloses a proper role for the state to take in designing welfare policies. To quote from the policy, “Welfare is intended primarily for the extremely vulnerable elderly who are disabled, infirm, and chronically sick and without any familial support” (NPOP, 1999). The national policy centres on the highly debated idea of successful ageing, putting the onus of care on individuals and extending it to families. The concept of “successful ageing” has been heavily criticized as it fails to account for differences in socioeconomic status and gender disparities, thus decontextualizing individual choices towards “healthy ageing”.21 With the breakdown of multigenerational households and a vicious cycle of poverty, neglect and poor health in old age, this approach of completely relying on families without offering extensive state support seems more and more unfeasible.
With recommendations made in the National Policy on Older Persons (NPOP) as well as the responsibility of the Government under the Maintenance & Welfare of Parents & Senior Citizens Act, new changes were suggested. It stated that older individuals in rural areas and older women require more attention and medical technology needs to be factored into the ageing policy. The suggestions fall short of addressing challenges of the feminization of the older population, and an increasing role of the state. Besides, medical technology and assistive devices have influenced the population ageing much less than the existing gender, regional, income, and class disparities. The National Program for Health Care of the Elderly (NPHCE) is based on the objectives of the National Policy for Older People. Similar biases are thus reflected in the NPHCE model. The NPHCE clearly outlines promoting “healthy” or “active” ageing in a “society for all ages” as its vision. Its specific objectives include easy access to health promotion, disease prevention, and curative and rehabilitative health services for older people. Its proposed strategy includes home health visits, dedicated services for elderly at all levels of the healthcare system, training of healthcare workers, and Information, Education and Communication (IEC). However, there are some serious limitations to the stated objectives.
First, the policy fails to account for existing patterns of healthcare-seeking in rural India where most older people live. As Das et al. identify most of the healthcare in villages is provided by informal, untrained private providers.22 Second, even if the existing healthcare workforce is trained, the urban-rural ratio of health workers remains 3:1 with three doctors in urban areas for each one in a rural area.23 The policy thus fails to address the basic problem of access to healthcare, which is further complicated in the case of older adults as explained previously. Third, if the problem of access is solved, the challenge of affordability remains. The limited budget allocated to healthcare focuses more on maternal and child-care services.24 Households with older adults thus spend 3.8 times more out of their pocket to meet healthcare needs. This spending is catastrophic for poorer elderly households).25 Alternative approaches can thus be explored to deliver healthcare to older people, especially in rural areas. We suggest Self-Help Groups, already existing in rural areas, as possible delivery points of healthcare for older adults.
We base our proposition on harnessing the principle of social capital in rural India, which has been effective in successful microfinance interventions for decades. Self-Help Groups can provide an alternative to deliver parts of the NPHCE in rural areas under the budgetary, social, and geographical constraints. The suggested policy response does not come without limitations, which are also discussed below.
Self-Help Groups for Rural Healthcare Delivery: A Possibility
Microfinance is the provision of capital in the form of small loans, savings opportunities, insurance, and similar products designed explicitly for the poor has been a debated strategy to reduce poverty. The Ministry of Finance supports providing microfinance to self-help groups of older persons so that they can undertake income-generating activities.26 Microfinance programs in several instances have bundled health education or insurance towards better public health and increased profits. No program has tested health promotion or basic healthcare service delivery to older adults through microfinance groups. Self-Help Groups (SHGs) of younger people can be trained and supported for rural healthcare delivery tailored towards older people. Moreover, as Sinha and Batniji point out microfinance is more suited to address basic health and disability care needs; two of the most important healthcare needs of older people.
Haldar and Stiglitz provide a theoretical basis to the debate, experiences, and a way forward for microfinance. The concepts of “social capital” and “institution” are of specific value.27 The economist duo looks at institutions as “emergent and localized reactions to collective action problems”. Designing long term care is heterogeneous and it needs local responses. In this scenario, microfinance can be looked at as a potential opportunity for policymakers. The confidence in the effectiveness of microfinance for successful rural ageing stems from its reliance on “social capital” to be successful. Social capital sees individual well-being “closely related to connectedness, and maintaining the affection and respect of those with whom one is closely connected, as an essential aspect of advancing an individual’s own sense of well-being”. The authors trope that non-reliance on social capital played a major role in the failure of microfinance institutions to help broadly define how microfinance can be utilized for healthy rural ageing. We emphasize on Self-Help Groups as women provide most of the caregiving needs across the world.
Incorporating SHGs in rural ageing is in line with the social trends of a rural area. A strong sense of community, relatively strict divisions between social classes and social capital as described above can ensure effective delivery of healthcare interventions. Lorenzetti et al. state, “The leading microfinance institution Grameen Bank’s preconditions for loaning under microfinance include- all members must be “poor”, live close to one another in the village, have no blood-ties, and be from roughly similar economic conditions.28 Achievement of such homogeneity can help deliver culturally appropriate and accepted healthcare.” For instance, health promotion in older adults is a major focus of the NPHCE.29 Based on the Census (2011), the literacy rate is 39.8 percent for the oldest age cohort. This varied from 22.2 percent in Jammu and Kashmir to 76.9 percent in Kerala. As younger cohorts have higher literacy rates and are embedded in the social fabric of the community, health promotion interventions through SHGs will likely be more effective for older cohorts. Indeed, interactive sessions on HIV/AIDS, prevention of non-communicable diseases, water, and sanitation have been effective through this approach in India, Ghana, and Peru. Sessions for fall prevention, urinary incontinence, and information regarding available social schemes can be accomplished through the SHGs. Thus widening the availability of healthcare for rural older adults.
The largest proportion of healthcare expenditure in India relates to the purchase of drugs. With the expansion of morbidity mostly driven by non-communicable diseases, long-term medical management of the condition is an essential and costly affair for progressively impoverishing rural older adults. Micro-franchise distribution of affordable, essential drugs can address some of these access to healthcare challenges. With the potential to be adapted to each setting and the decentralized nature of microfinance, it can increase the uptake of healthcare in the most marginalized of older adults. Approach to healthcare for older adults has traditionally been “holistic” and “team-based”. The same approach, supported by the principle of social capital in rural communities, can help provide appropriate healthcare to older adults.
Critique of microfinance stems from the evaluation of interventions failing to demonstrate growth in income or gender empowerment. The microfinance crisis in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India,30 where 57 microcredit debtors committed suicide in 2010, is not lost on the writers.31 As Haldar and Stiglitz’s (2014) analysis of the failure of the model of microfinance points out, the flaws can be overcome with adherence to limited profit margins, the essentiality of social capital, and strong vertical and horizontal ties at all levels of the institution. With the Malegam committee’s proposal for a regulation of the microfinance sector, the risks of another crisis can be reduced.32 The essay does not advocate decontextualized use of microfinance; for example, the bundling of health insurance with a separate loan.33 It rather advocates a community-based approach to rural healthy ageing, delivered not by a single healthcare worker under a state-dependent structure, but developed, financed, and led by the community itself. If designed properly, microfinance backed Self-Help Groups may change the healthcare of rural older adults for the better. Especially in current times, given the restrictions to healthcare access and employment opportunities the Covid-19 pandemic has imposed, traditional financing and healthcare setups need the support of non-traditional ones, like microfinance to protect the interests of the most disadvantaged.
Population ageing is a process and will continue to pose a challenge to income security, work and retirement, health, and social care policymaking. This is magnified in the context of ageing in India, which is heavily populated with a predominantly informal economy, near absence of social security, and wide disparities in public health and healthcare systems. With the constraints on the younger population, a more responsive rather than punitive system will likely benefit the ageing population most. With changing family structures, the country needs to expand social security for an ageing population with context-relevant, decentralized measures. Foremost, it is important to collect and analyze good quality data on demography to facilitate policy making. To reverse trends in the expansion of morbidity, the newly introduced healthcare program for older adults needs to redirect its resources where the morbidity lies – in rural, feminized, deprived populations of older adults. Provision of healthcare for healthy rural ageing through Self-Help Groups can be explored as a contextually relevant, decentralized, low-cost option for better health outcomes.
The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. The picture on the header for this article has been clicked by Umesh Jadhav. Other images via open source.
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