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The Shravan Kumar Approach To Elder Care in India Doesn’t Work Any More

Posted: July 3, 2020

The elderly have many needs that they need help with, but the burden of caring for them cannot fall only on women in the family. 

As is the case with most economic and social stresses, the marginalised are often the worst affected victims of the ongoing pandemic too. Even within this group of the marginalised, women occupy a significant space.

To understand the effect that this pandemic is having on women, one needs to acknowledge that things weren’t so good to start with, before the outbreak of COVID-19.

With that being said, women’s unpaid care activities exceed men’s by four times in Asian countries; globally, women do 76% of the total hours of unpaid care work, which includes caring for household work, looking after the elderly, and children, etc. Regardless of where a country falls on the development scale, this figure is starkly different for men and women, barring a few. With a national lockdown that has been going on for three months, women’s (unpaid) care activities have only increased.

Working women struggle to balance care work and paid work

The situation of working women is just as grim, if not more: they often face the added burden of balancing household and/or care work with little or no help, as well as their professional work. Thus, the struggles associated with COVID-19 are an important motivator to study the importance of elderly care facilities in India, and the role they might play in helping women with employment.

Due to existing gender norms around employment and work in India, it should come as no surprise that women dominate the care sector. Thus, boosting the care sector could not only help working women, but it could also create more employment for women in the care sector; however, this could potentially further reinforce the stereotype of assigning the role of the primary care-giver to women.

While this looks convenient in theory, in a country like India, even before the expansion of the care industry, and women’s employment, is the problematic perception of elderly care facilities. Due to age-old norms and beliefs, physically caring for the elderly is viewed as the logical next step in one’s life, once their family members reach a certain age.

Reinforced by popular culture, with movies such as Piku, Baghban, Lage Raho Munna Bhai, and Waqt, it’s something that is deeply entrenched in patriarchal societies such as India – how a daughter-in-law’s morals are said to be directly proportional to her ability and willingness to care for her ailing in-laws or parents, oftentimes both. This care work ranges from cooking and cleaning for the elderly, along with the entire house, feeding them in certain cases, constantly watching over them, depending on if any elderly member(s) has an illness, and the intensity of care they require.

Caroline Criado Perez talks about how an increase in government spending in the caregiving sector will have a positive trickle-down effect, in her book Invisible Women. However, what is less explored is how the perception of caregiving in India adversely impacts women’s participation in unpaid work. Gupta et al. (2009) accurately brings out how the same values that facilitate and reward men for participating in elderly care activities, also easily overlook the contributions of women.

Caring for the elderly needs practical help, not idolising

Here, seeking external help or care for the elderly tends to be viewed with a certain level of guilt (for those looking), and stigma by society in general. The country’s correlation of physically caring for the elderly with respect, love, and duty, has been passed down from generation to generation. In most cases, families are the primary caregivers for the elderly, with little or no assistance. Additionally, assistance entails a cost that not all families can afford. In such a setting, more often than not, women’s employment gets treated as dispensable.

Given the limited number and unsanitary conditions of several from this already small group, elder-care homes are viewed as spaces for one to get rid of their filial responsibilities. It’s possible that tying this practice to duty could be traced back to mythological figures that are often idolised, for example, Shravan Kumar, Rama, Arjuna, to name a few. Institutional care of the elderly, in several cases, may prove beneficial for more than just their immediate family members: according to a report by HelpAge India, one in four elder is abused, and nearly 82% of the victims didn’t report the problem.

The average size of an Indian household is 4.9 people, as opposed to Sweden, where it’s 2.2 people. This statistic can be interpreted as a difference in the type of families that are common between the two countries: if one looks at 2001 and 2011 census data, the portion of urban nuclear families has fallen by approximately 2%, while that of rural families has risen. More family members, whether urban or rural, potentially entail increased unpaid care work for the primary caregiver. India’s population is ageing, with projections of there being approximately 133.32 million citizens above the age of 60 by the upcoming, 2021 census.

The elderly often have a host of needs that need to be met with, like the rest of the population, but they cannot do so on their own, and expecting their families alone to take care of those needs is irrational. Earlier this year, the government allocated approximately Rs. 9,500 crores for senior citizens in the budget, for the development of skilled paramedics, and other medical staff to cater to their needs.

Like most problems, this isn’t one that can resolve by large budgetary allocations alone. There are several facets that need to be covered, for there to exist a truly inclusive and sensitive system of care and gendered social norms, which does not actively harm already marginalised women.

Image via Canva

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Anchal is a research assistant at Monk Prayogshala in the Department of economics. She tweets @

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