India must spend more money and improve public services to prepare for a surge in its elderly population in the coming decades, the country head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) said.

Here are excerpts from a Reuters interview with Nata Menabde:

What is the state of India’s elderly population?
“The percentage of elderly is growing very very fast, especially in India and in Southeast Asia also. The projections are that we will have between 12-13 percent of elderly as part of entire population by the year 2025, and that we’re going to reach some 17 percent of the population being elderly by 2050. Now that is every fifth Indian being elderly, which is going to be a very different society as a whole which needs to be seriously taken into consideration.”
“There’s no surprise for any one that generally healthcare provision in India requires a major improvement and that is very much related to differences of healthcare provision in urban and rural areas.”

On elderly women:
“The age dependency is very high in India, and especially in women, who are usually unemployed, less participating in labour market, and more dependent on their spouses. At the same time, women live longer than men, in India as everywhere else in the world, which means that those women who are so dependent on their spouses end up in large numbers living without the spouse to take care of them.”

How much of a challenge will taking care of elderly people present in India compared to other developing countries?
“I think these challenges are perhaps not so specific to elderly. I think these are challenges which India faces in general, in terms of providing good quality healthcare services to general population, including elderly obviously. With the high and growing number of elderly, one has to carefully look at the financial security of elderly, which is a very important provision for elderly to live a full life.”
“The bigger the group of elderly becomes for India, the more burden will be put on the population in a productive age to take care of those elderly through their incomes and the various obligations that the society puts on the families and the extended families. With India’s economic growth, obviously there are more resources available to make adequate provision for a number of those issues and challenges that India faces. And the government is doing a lot of those. The introduction of integrated programmes for taking care of elderly. There are special healthcare-related programmes, with geriatric services being secured and more available for elderly, but what that requires is really a look and overhaul of the entire health system that is providing those services.”
“If you look how the property goes in India. If the man dies, it’s not his spouse who will inherit the property, it will be the next male in the family. So that leaves a lot of disturbances for the elderly females, for example. So these kinds of things need to be changed.”

On India’s health expenditure:
“What is absolutely clear (is) that there is a huge need of increasing public expenditure in health. The prime minister of India has publicly made an announcement that they will go from 1.2 percent of GDP into 2.5 during the course of 12th Year Plan. We are strongly supporting that because 80 percent of healthcare costs are borne by people out of pocket, and that obviously leaves those who do not have money disadvantaged and left behind.”