Independent senior living takes hold in India

She grew up listening to her grandparents’ stories over dinner, three generations gathered in the house they shared, like nearly every Indian family she knew.

But now that Uma Paranjpe is a grandmother, she finds herself living alone in a small apartment, her children abroad, her grandchildren far from her cooking and her stories.

And she’s thrilled.

“Grandparents also want their own independence,” said the 62-year-old widow, who lives in a bustling retirement community in Pune, a city in southwestern India. “We want freedom. We would like to travel, to pursue our hobbies.”

A cultural revolution is under way in India, led by an unlikely gray-haired vanguard that is dramatically changing what it means to be old here, and what it means to be a family. In a country where family is society’s strongest cultural anchor, the thought of the elderly living alone has been anathema, but many old people today are embracing the notion.

With the economy booming, children are moving away for jobs, leaving elderly parents on their own. While some lament the breakdown in family, others — especially the well-off — are happy to devote their old age to themselves instead of their grandchildren.

The new retirement communities are so far available only for the rich. There’s nothing between the high-end Floridian-like facilities and bleak government-run homes for those with nowhere else to go.

Roughly a dozen development companies across the country offer sparkling facilities complete with badminton courts, lap pools and game rooms to the wealthiest sliver of the country’s 80 million people over 60.

“I don’t think my son or my daughter will look after me — and I’m damn happy about it,” said Minoo Shroff, 72, who lives in a housing complex for seniors in Pune, a city popular with retirees because it’s more temperate than much of the rest of India. “I’m independent, they’re independent.”

Seniors in India traditionally occupy a role somewhere between family pillar and dependent hanger-on, with more than 71 percent of the elderly living with their children or grandchildren, according to the 2001 national census.

Grandparents can be revered keepers of family lore or ghostly presences cooking nearly forgotten recipes. But from cities to villages, caring for one’s parents is to most Indians a duty as important as caring for one’s children, and home after home across the country is crowded with the same mix of generations.

Experts say the new prosperity flooding into India is weakening the “joint family” system, where the next generation lived with the last, because the pace of life is becoming more Western.

“The younger generation is very busy. They don’t have time to spend with older people,” said Harvinder Bakshi of HelpAge India, an activist group for the elderly.

Shashank Paranjape, the real-estate developer generally credited with introducing retirement homes to India, opened his first project, Athashri, in 2003 in Pune as a complex explicitly modeled on Western retirement homes. With about 1,000 residents in four branches, Athashri is a thriving community that looks as though it were plucked straight from Florida, right down to the early-bird specials — spicy lentils and rice.

The community buzzes with card games, book clubs and music lessons — activities unthinkable in generations past, when old age was spent helping with grandkids and household chores.

“My mother used to love the violin, but she never had time to play,” said Pushpa Salem, 67, who has become an avid butterfly collector since moving to Athashri nearly five years ago. “She would have loved it here.”

“When we stay with our children we feel very old,” she said. “Here, we feel young.”