While driving through Delhi, one gets accustomed to beggars tapping on car windows at traffic signals and often tunes them out. However, one old man caught my attention the other day. He spoke English, was dressed in a clean shirt and pants, but was homeless or so he told me. At 74, Sadanand found himself on the streets one day after being kicked out of his house because his son “could no longer look after an old man with no use to the family”. I am sure there was more to this story, but the light had turned green.
I pressed some money into his hand, but felt helpless at resorting to this quick-fix solution. I knew there are many like Sadanand walking the streets, abandoned by their own children. It shocks me that we as a nation, with a tradition of respecting the elderly, continue to overlook the problem of abuse that this section of our population faces.
Mind you, this is not a small segment of the population that can be brushed under the carpet as insignificant. Currently, there are 100 million senior citizens in India, according to a HelpAge India survey. The survey says twice the number of senior citizens in India reported abuse in 2014 compared to 2013. While 85 per cent of the respondents to the HelpAge India survey in Nagpur reported to have been abused, in Bangalore it was 75 per cent who reported abuse. These are, of course, relative figures since they are dependent on the forthcoming nature of the respondents.
The law has taken notice of the shocking scale of neglect and abuse of the elderly and made it illegal. The Maintenance of Parents and Dependents Bill 2001 of Himachal Pradesh and the Parents and Senior Citizens Bill 2007 passed by the Parliament attempt to ensure proper care for such dependents. However, one is left to ponder how often this law is implemented, given that majority of the elderly do not approach the law to report abuse. This occurs mostly because of poor awareness among senior citizens about grievance redressal mechanisms. Other reasons for the silence are often the fear that reporting abuse would mean compromising family honour.
Since about 77 per cent of senior citizens live with their families, most of them, who are not on the streets like Sadanand, do not feel comfortable reporting the situation for fear of antagonizing their ‘caregivers’—mostly sons and daughters-in-law. Perhaps it’s time to revise the clichéd soap opera tale of the evil saas (mother-in-law) abusing the bahu (daughter-in-law) and look at some of the patterns of abuse that are not talked about or even acknowledged.
Abuse ranges from verbal to physical neglect and disrespect. There are, however, many cases that go to the extreme of physical abuse and in some instances homelessness. The very dark side of the spectrum is suicide, where senior citizens feel the only way out is to take one’s life.
Sociologists and NGOs point to socio-economic changes and the erosion of family values. The transformation of the joint family system to nuclear often puts an undue amount of pressure on the son as the sole caregiver. Not all men earn enough to support their parents as well as their wife and children. In dual-income homes, where both partners work, sometimes the wife may feel a little resentment at supporting her husband’s parents when her own parents are in need of care and maintenance.
One way out of such complex situations is old-age homes. However, there is a certain stigma associated with putting one’s parents in an old-age home. One could argue, nonetheless, it is certainly better than the daily abuse and neglect that they may face living with their children.
And for those senior citizens who are childless, living alone proves to be dangerous and leaves them vulnerable to robbery and murder. In these situations, it is often best to retire to an old-age home.
The other stumbling block in this situation would be the dearth of facilities that exist for senior citizens. Retirement homes, as they are now called, are often depressing places and isolate the elderly from interacting with younger people, like their grandchildren and children. Most old-age homes tend to be poorly funded and do not offer clean or healthy living conditions.
Options for the affluent are on the rise with the emergence of retirement townships, which cater to people above 50 and provide them with eco-friendly homes and an active lifestyle. On the other end of the spectrum are non-government voluntary organizations which cater to even the very poor.
While living with their children, the effective mechanisms perceived to deal with elder abuse include “increasing economic independence of the abused (30 per cent)”, “sensitizing children and strengthening inter-generational bonding (21 per cent)” and “developing Self-Help Groups of Older Persons to provide assistance and intervention (14 per cent).”
There is always hope on the horizon to emerge from the dark, but we as a society need to change our attitude to facilitate any real and lasting change.
Dalmia is chairperson of Grievance Cell,All India Congress Committee