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South Asia - Living Arrangements

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Familial coresidence remains the norm for most seniors in South Asia. The availability of extrafamilial facilities for elderly persons is minimal, and social norms strongly favor familial coresidence and care. Variations in family and kinship structures in South Asia thus illustrate living arrangements and support for seniors.

Broadly speaking, South Asian kinship systems range from exogamous, patrilineal, and patrilocal systems in the northern half of the sub-continent, to endogamous, matrilineal, and matrilocal systems in many groups in southern India and Sri Lanka. These diverse systems all imply coresidence in joint family groups, but have different implications for elderly men and women. For example, under patrilineal/ patrilocal systems, elderly men, as the senior male in the household, can expect lifelong residential support and care, usually from married sons. However, such support is not universal, varying by socioeconomic status, landholding, presence of spouse, and number of surviving sons. Elderly women, particularly widows with no son, are more vulnerable under patrilineal/ patrilocal systems. While women have varying inheritance and property rights, in practice these are dependent upon the goodwill of male kin Table 3 Median Ages in South Asian Countries, 2000 and 2050 SOURCE: United Nations, 1998 (Agarwal). The desire to bear several sons, in order to ensure that at least one will survive to adulthood and provide old-age care, underpins the persistent high fertility in South Asia.

Elderly women in groups that practiced matrilineal inheritance/matrilocal residence usually enjoyed considerable old-age security, because they resided with their married daughters and property was inherited in the female line. However, social and legal changes in the twentieth century dismantled these arrangements and introduced patrilineal inheritance and nuclear residence patterns. This has manifested in the hitherto unheard-of phenomenon of destitute elderly women in the state of Kerala in southwestern India, a region usually noted for the high status of women.

Before longevity increased, there was comparatively less chance that a husband and wife would survive to see all their grandchildren. Now people live longer on average, which implies a prolonged period of multigenerational family life. Declining fertility means fewer descendants to provide support. Other important changes influencing the living conditions of seniors include geographical mobility of the working-age population, increasing numbers of women working outside the household, and a greater move toward the nuclear family with emphasis on providing for children’s nurture, education, and careers. Working-age adults with young children and elderly parents thus encounter increasing difficulties. They face economic hardship when allocating resources between support of their elderly relatives and financing of their own advancement and the education of their children, and all generations face psychological stress. Where the working-age generation has migrated for employment, financial hardships may decrease, but at the cost of loneliness or isolation of the seniors.

One study in southern India (Irudaya Rajan et al.) suggests that only 46 percent of elders (and only 25 percent of female elders) who stated a preference to stay with their children during old age were actually able to do so. Indian National Sample Survey data for 1991 show that elderly persons express an increasing preference over time to stay in old age homes. The number of old age homes in India increased from 29 before 1901 to 329 after 1976; 57 percent of them were located in southern India. These facilities are far fewer than the number needed to meet the potential demand.

Widowhood. South Asian women are more at risk of widowhood than men, partly because of early and nearly universal marriage of younger women to older men. Though until recently the life expectancy at birth was lower for most South Asian women than for men, the risk of widowhood still remains substantially higher for women, and life expectancy is projected to increase more for women. This means that many more women than men will be widowed, for several years, in these populations. There are region-, religion-, and caste-based restrictions on widow remarriage, ranging from enforced leviratic unions to bans on remarriage. Widowed men usually do not face these restrictions.

There appear to be broad similarities in the socioeconomic situation of widows in Pakistan, northern India, and Bangladesh. Widows in northern India suffer from economic deprivation, social isolation, and higher morbidity and mortality rates, compared with married women in the same age groups (Chen and Dreze).

Increasing age brings the growing risk of widowhood and of female household headship, though the proportion of female-headed households in South Asia is much lower than elsewhere in Asia. Forty-seven percent of the widows in one study resided in households headed by themselves (Chen and Dreze). Evidence for Bangladesh suggests that 12 percent of widows lived alone (Chen and Dreze). Members of female-headed households are more at risk of poverty because of the absence of a male earner. Men usually hold the titles to productive assets, command higher wages than women, and are more likely to be economically active. Female-headed households tend to be smaller but have a higher proportion of dependents than households Table 4 Work Participation Rate Among the Elderly SOURCE: International Labor Office, 2000 headed by males. Members of such households are less likely to be beneficiaries of government programs designed to help the poor (United Nations, 1994).

South Asia - Economic Status And Retirement Patterns [next] [back] South Asia - Trends In Population Aging

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