x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

India's elderly make a move for freedom

Retirement communities are a growing market as senior citizens are breaking with tradition by leaving the family home for the 'Florida model'.

BHIWADI, india // At first glance, Ashiana Utsav in Bhiwadi, two hours drive from Delhi, could be any of hundreds of gated communities that have sprung up across India in the last decade. Sunny-coloured, low-rise apartment blocks surround a perfectly manicured communal garden and immaculate roads steer you gently through security posts where the guards salute every incoming car.

But come early evening and the difference is obvious. As the sun becomes low in the sky and day starts to cool, the residents of Ashiana Utsav emerge from their apartments to mingle and take exercise. There is Mr S Bhatia - a matter-of-fact 64-year-old whose evening routine includes a 6km walk around the central park and often a game of chess. Then there is Mr S C Kanwar, 80, an intellectual who can be most often found near the fountain reading a book, and Mrs Bhalla, a youthful 61-year-old who makes a bee-line for the table tennis room every evening, or the lawn where she tends to her Bonsai trees.

Everyone here is over 55, they have to be - that is the rule. Ashiana Utsav in Bhiwadi, is a retirement community and it residents are among a new wave of Indian senior citizens who have broken with tradition and are living separately from their children. "There is no question that 30 years ago a community like this would not have existed," said Saurabh Sharma, the manager of Ashiana Utsav. "It took time for the concept to take off. You could say there was a stigma surrounding the idea of allowing your parents to live separately at first."

Yet take off, it has. Ashiana has just finished building a second "utsav" - which means "celebration" in Hindi - in the northern city of Jaipur and a third in the south-western city of Pune. Combined, they comprise of 800 apartments and houses. And Ashiana is not alone. In the last seven years - since the first such community was built in Pune - a dozen other developers have built similar projects and most are in the process of constructing more.

"It's a trend that's only going to increase," said Saumyajit Roy, vice president in charge of social infrastructure at the Delhi office of Jones Lang Lasalle Meghraj, a real estate firm. "We estimate there is an immediate need for 200,000 units across the country." There are currently 90 million people in India over the age of 60 and though they currently only account for eight per cent of a 1.13 billion strong population at the moment, that percentage is set to rise as people have fewer children and senior citizens live longer.

By 2025, it is estimated there will be 177 million Indian seniors, a figure which is forecast to increase to 240 million by 2050. "Soon one in five Indians is going to be a senior citizen, they are going to need somewhere to live," said Mr Roy. Traditionally, senior citizens in India have lived with their families - most commonly with the eldest son who considered looking after his parents a duty almost as weighty as caring for his own children.

Indian culture held the perfect household to be one where several generations lived harmoniously under the same roof with the grandparents assuming the role of keeper of family ritual and lore , as well as part-time child minder. Now, however, two decades of breakneck economic growth have undermined this centuries-old tradition. The introduction of western work models means that many young middle class Indians have to spend more time focusing on their careers in order to get ahead.

Often that means moving away from their home city or overseas to pursue opportunities. Children are marrying later, and women - who traditionally carry the responsibility of caring for their in-laws - often continue working after marriage. "We no longer have the time to spend with our parents," said Gitanjali Prasad, author of The Great Indian Family, a book examining the dynamics of Indian family life. "That feeling of reverence has gone. There is still love and respect but that feeling that the old were the custodians of culture and tradition has gone."

But the same economic growth that put the extended family unit under pressure also means that this generation of retirees is richer than any generation before them. Many upper and middle class seniors have travelled abroad and to some extent they have adopted some of the same western concepts of personal freedom and space as their children. Many of them baulk at the idea of becoming a shuffling presence in their children's homes reliant on them for transport, food and a social life.

"Today, people in their 60s have money, there are in good health and they have a different mindset - they are not so traditional, they are willing to try new things, new ways of living," said A Gongopadhyay, vice president of Ashiana Housing. The first few Indian retirement communities stuck closely to the Florida model and were aimed at the wealthy. But an increasing number of developers, Ashiana included, are targeting their products at the middle classes. At Ashiana Utsav Bhiwadi, prices range from US$38,000 (Dh140,000) for a one bedroom apartment to $68,000 for a three room unit - well within the budget of many retiring civil servants, military and business men.

To help give it a more Indian feel, the developers built a Hindu temple on site and there are even yoga pavilions in the communal green spaces, where there might be a bowls lawn in the West. Such was the demand for places at the Bhiwadi Ustav that they sold all 640 of their apartments a year ahead of schedule. For people like Mrs Bhalla, a former social worker who had stayed in retirement communities in the US when she and her husband visited their son, the concept was not a hard sell. "We were waiting for something like this to come in India," she said. "Our son asked us to go and live with him but you become reliant on them for everything," she said. "Here, you get to do what you want with out any limitations. I have taken up my old hobbies again." @Email:foreign.desk@thenational.ae