Youth is a blunder; manhood a struggle, old age a regret, they say. I believe it’s not regret that haunts the elderly; it’s yearning. Yearning for company, for conversation, for relevance, for touch, for love. And that’s exactly what they don’t get, thanks to the increasing trend of nuclear families with demanding children and even more demanding work and travel schedules. The majority of old people, who have meagre or no source of income, need to battle poverty along with their reduced mobility and debilitating disabilities. The lucky few, with money, property and supportive (or not) children, have domestic staff or nurses to help them with their physical needs. That done, even they are largely left to their own devices.
According to a study conducted by Agewell Foundation last year, 43 per cent of the elderly in India face psychological problems owing to loneliness. Over 45 per cent claim that their family members don’t care about their needs and interests. And this is in a country where the number of young (and able) people still far outstrips the elderly. Imagine what will happen when the number of old people jumps, as is expected, from today’s 104 million to 173 million by 2026.
The Agewell report says elderly abuse is rampant in India. Old women, who usually have no source of income or savings and tend to live longer (the sex ratio was 1,033 old women to 1,000 men in 2011 and is expected to touch 1,060 by 2026), face more disdain than the men. With nowhere else to go and no one to turn to, they put up with it for their own peace of mind and/or for the sake of the family that once loved them.
It’s not just an Indian phenomenon. Of all the news reports I’ve read recently, the saddest came from Japan, which has the world’s oldest population (27.3 per cent compared to India’s nine per cent). Apparently, many old Japanese women have taken to committing petty crimes like shoplifting just so that they can go to prison where they say they find the care and sense of belonging that’s missing from their everyday life.
Most of these ladies live alone; 40 per cent either don’t have relatives or rarely speak to them. Even women with homes to go to say they feel invisible there, recognised only as someone who can help around the house. In prison, in contrast, there are always people around, and they don’t feel lonely. One old lady talks about how much she enjoys working in the prison factory and on being complimented on her efficiency. A 78-year-old, in prison for the third time, is quoted as saying: “Prison is an oasis for me”.
When they get out, all the women promise never to come back. But once out, they keep thinking about their life in jail and yearn to return. So they steal something again, and do. They know they don’t have any freedom in prison, but they don’t mind because they have nothing to worry about, either. Plus, there are many people to chat with and nutritious meals three times a day.Maybe Janis Joplin was right. Maybe freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.