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Gayatri Bhasker, standing, brings her new daughter Aadhya to visit her parents S.K., left, and Revathi at their villa in one of India's few communities for senior citizens, near Coimbatore, in Tamil Nadu. (Stephanie Nolen for The Globe and Mail)
Gayatri Bhasker, standing, brings her new daughter Aadhya to visit her parents S.K., left, and Revathi at their villa in one of India's few communities for senior citizens, near Coimbatore, in Tamil Nadu. (Stephanie Nolen for The Globe and Mail)

demographics

In India, a push for acceptance when the grandparents move out Add to ...

When Revathi Bhasker and her husband, S. K., retired from their long careers in banking and academia two years ago, they made a move that left their daughters reeling.

Instead of subsiding gently into dotage and sharing a home with their children, as Indians have done for centuries, the Bhaskers sold their house in northern India and bought a small villa in this temperate and sleepy city in the south, where they knew no one. And they bought in a retirement community – words so heavily weighted with stigma that their daughter Gayatri admits she shrieked when she first heard them. “You just think, old age home! My God!” she said.

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Changing demographics and sweeping cultural changes – including longer life spans, a shift from multigenerational households to nuclear families, lower fertility rates, the emergence of two-career couples, young people moving away, within India and abroad, and the dawning realization that one’s “silver innings” can be a rewarding phase of life – are creating a new market for residences residential facilities for people in their 60s and older.

Old-age homes are seen in India as grim charitable institutions that take in abandoned elderly people whose own children are too callous to care for them.

But Serene Soundarayam Senior Comfort Villas, where the Bhaskers bought, is anything but grim. It has movie nights and group outings, a resident massage therapist and daily maid service. It offers Tele-medicine facilities so they can consult a doctor, pharmacists who make house calls and plenty of people their own age for conversation and company.

Much better, the Bhaskers figured, than sitting in their silent house all day. “Here we do what we like,” said Ms. Bhasker. They pay $300 a month for maintenance and activities, and another $100 a month for three meals and two tea-and-snack deliveries a day.

The community where the Bhaskers are happily settled is one of only a half-dozen retirement communities in India. But the there is potential for more, in a country with 140 million people over the age of 60, is huge. The Association of Senior Living in India (ASLI) – a new industry organization that has existed for less than a year – says there are 5,000 residential units for seniors in place and an immediate market for 300,000.

The few seniors’ communities that do exist are for able-bodied people such as the Bhaskers. There are as yet no private assisted-living facilities. But Colonel Achal Sridharan, a retired Indian-army-officer-turned-developer, hopes to change that.

The Colonel, now 65, used to volunteer with his wife at a charitable old age home. Driving home one day, she wondered out loud what would become of them when they got old, given that their own two daughters live abroad. When a piece of land came up for sale at the edge of the temperate sleepy city of Coimbatore, the Colonel decided to build villas for middle-class people their age who might want to live independently.

Over the past two years, his firm has branched into seven cities across southern India, has 650 units occupied now and expects to have 3,000 units finished by 2015. Unbuilt units are 60 per cent sold, he said, and finished ones have a waiting list.

The Colonel is also building an assisted living facility in Chennai, in the North American model, that will be the first of its kind in India. For this, he faces another problem – India has no colleges training staff in gerontology or seniors-targeted nursing – that has kept other players out of the market.

Industry analysts say a cornerstone tenet of Indian culture also deters more development. “We have this mania for owning,” in Revathi Bhasker’s words. At the typical Canadian assisted-living facility, residents pay a monthly fee for housing and a selection of other services, such as meals and an evolving level of medical monitoring. A powerful Indian preference for ownership – for putting income into a fixed asset that can be left to one’s children – makes that model unappealing. Not a single company in the country uses it so far.

The ownership model means real estate players dominate the retirement-home sector, said Mansoor Dalal, the founding chairman of ASLI who built and runs a 54-unit facility in Pune. And Indian firms still don’t want to build assisted-living facilities: One problem is interest rates at 18 per cent, so the deferred return does not appeal to investors, and most real estate companies are family businesses leery of committing to providing life-long care.

But attitudes are changing quickly. Gayatri Bhasker, a busy working mother, recently brought her baby daughter for a visit with her parents at the retirement community she initially dreaded. Now she calls it a vacation paradise. “I really love it – all my stress went away. With them here, I can relax.”

Follow on Twitter: @snolen

 

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