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Lack of adequate care for senior citizens is a real issue in India that cuts across economic and social strata. Many of us have personally lived through and experienced it with our own parents and elders. Most senior citizens, especially those who live independently, are unable to get the care and trusted support they need. As a result, they compromise on their needs and lifestyle inspite of financial independence. Their children or care-givers are forced to spend disproportionate time, mind-share and/or resources to support them. So much so, that many women are forced to stay away from the work-force to take care of elders at home.

The imminent demographic, economic, social changes with growing population of senior citizens in urban India, their increasing financial independence, safety and security environment and rising aspirations of the young leading to more women in the workforce and increased mobility, are rapidly driving up the magnitude of this problem.

The Numbers

If we look at numbers, India is home to 115 million elderly – that is more than 8% of the population. Many of us don’t realize but that puts India into the category of ‘ageing’ countries according to UN classification. 36 million of these elderly live without their spouses (which incidentally is more than the population of Australia). Over the next 10 years, we will net add 12,000 more elderly everyday on an average.  While India’s overall population will grow by about 40% from 2006 to 2050, the population of the oldest elderly (80 plus) will grow 500% over the same period. This should be enough to make one take notice and realize that caring for and engaging with elderly is already and will, in the next 5 to 10 years, become one of the big areas of work in our country. The data put out by UN and Indian government coupled with our own primary research makes a fascinating study. Some may look at it as challenge and some as a big opportunity, it is not different from the developed world where ageing population is indeed one of the top issues of focus for both enterprises and governments.

The general approach to this in India has been somewhat ostrich-like in ignoring this segment. The government, for example, spends a measly 0.032% of GDP on the elderly. Businesses have attempted to address this segment squarely only sporadically e.g. with emotional advertising that features a poignant moment or a cute conversation involving an elderly grandparent but there has been very little effort in terms of products, services, applications designed for the elderly in India.

The Challenges

The reasons for such apathy, especially among businesses and entrepreneurs, are perhaps not difficult to guess. I spoke to a bunch of senior professionals who have launched new ventures, led product market strategies in large organizations and then a number of young start-up turks. Here is a synthesis of what people said were reasons for not going after serving the elderly market:

  • The elderly are difficult to reach and communicate with as a group. Other than mass media (read television), which obviously has very high spillage, there aren’t other clear ways of targeting them efficiently
  • Nearly everyone feels that this is not an easy demographic to sell to. The elderly are cynical, not open to experiment, not willing to spend and difficult to please
  • The market is not large given the limited needs and lack of propensity to spend among the elderly.
  • The investing community is not excited by this demographic as there is a bigger opportunity for exponential growth in addressing the young, upwardly mobile consumers

I would be curious to know if you agree or disagree. Why aren’t more products and services designed for the elderly? Why aren’t more startups thinking of addressing this segment? Are VCs right in not seeing the opportunity here?

And where does this leave the elderly? Especially the urban elderly, who as our own research with elderly shows, care about their quality of life and continue to have a desire to enjoy life. What does it mean for so many people like us, our generation – who have elderly parents living in a different city or country and who can’t be with them but would like to support them in leading a life of peace and happiness?

I sense a problem looking for a solution.

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