Are old people dispensable? They have lived their lives, done their bit… tears and laughter, loves and hates, successes and failures, most of all that is behind them. The autumn of their lives is already dropping off its colours leaving behind a wintry grey. There’s not much they can do, except nurse their memories, and watch their faculties fade one by one. Hearing or eyesight, knees or shoulder, mind or heart depending on hereditary bestowing and adopted lifestyles could be areas of interest for current or potential trouble. If they are lucky they still have roles to play in the family.
Indians still believe that the old need to be cared for; blessing or burden, but the idea of placing an elder, even ones with fading memories, irritating habits and myriad health issues, in a ‘home’ to be tended by strangers is still one most will baulk at.
It is true that the current older generation is clocking in more years than the earlier one did. Not many generations ago, touching 80 was a feat to be celebrated; today 90 is the new 80. Families carry the burden of ageing elders with a mix of acceptance and indifference. Often nuclear homes expand to accommodate a parent who can no longer manage alone, and concessions, adjustments ensue, to change the tracks of life to include never before demands and experiences into the course of each new day. The debt one owes one’s elders has to be repaid by them being taken care of when their turn comes.
Which is why it was surprising to hear of three separate cases where hospitals in Chennai refused to provide medical help to senior citizens, opining instead that they were each too old for the procedures their cases required. An 80-year-old leading an active life was turned away from being given a stent on the verdict that she was too old for the procedure that would unblock her artery and allow her to return to life as she had known it just a few weeks before. The rejection ended in her completely preventable death.
A 70-year-old man was told that he had to hope the kidney stone that often subjected him to excruciating pain would ‘pass normally out’. He was ‘too old’ for any procedure to remove or destroy the stone. The third case was something similar, concerning a 75-year-old. One thought doctors were sworn to cure, to alleviate pain and disease-giving conditions. And hospitals welcomed any source of income, regardless of ailment or age.
Perhaps it was the relentless burdening of the medical fraternity by the long siege of Covid waves that changed the perspective that every life is precious and must be given the right to run its full course. Whatever the reason, for the families concerned, it adds a further burden. The old suffer enough by way of feeling left out, neglected, or superfluous. Denying medical help when they need it is cruel. That medically qualified persons do so, is the cruelest cut of all. And shameful.
Author & Consulting Editor, Penguin Random House