Struggle in the sunset years

A few months ago, news about an elderly man was doing rounds on TV and social media. The man, once a successful industrialist, was virtually on the streets, all because his son allegedly threw him out after usurping all property.

Of the three issues that troubled and distressed Buddha, old age was one. Across the world, June 15 is observed as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD). Recognising the growing incidences of elder abuse all over the world in 2006, the International Network for Prevention of Elder Abuse designated this day as WEAAD.

It’s a day to acknowledge the problem, prevent it and provide the senior citizen a life of self-respect and dignity. Over the years, governments, non-governmental agencies, professional bodies and individuals worldwide have joined hands to deal with this socially sensitive issue.

A few decades ago, talking about elder abuse in our country would have sounded like a blasphemy, but not anymore. Today, it’s an elephant in the room whose presence cannot be ignored anymore. For a nation that took pride in its ancient culture, this issue is difficult to gulp.

Traditionally, the joint family system in India ensured that elder people are protected and cared for. For generations, parents worked to ensure a good education and career for their children and often ended up without financial security for themselves in old age because it was presumed that children would take care of them. This situation led to total dependence of the elderly on children for the rest of their lives.

Post independence, life expectancy in India began increasing. In 2009, people aged 60 years and above were 7%. By 2050, this number is believed to go up to 20%. Galloping changes in society, the falling apart of joint families, changes in economy, growing urbanisation have all changed our societal perceptions, attitudes and needs.

Women in cities as well as villages find it a necessity today to seek work outside to meet the increased expenses of education and changed lifestyles. In two decades, the average number of family members has come down from 6-7 to 3-4.

The WHO defines elder abuse as “a single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress to an older person.” Several NGOs working in the field report that nearly two-thirds of elders suffer from one or other form of abuse. It may be psychological, physical and financial. Elder abuse is a global issue, even developed countries like the US and European countries report an elder abuse rate of 8-10%.

Inadequate social welfare schemes means the responsibility of elder care rests on the younger population. More than 70% of elderly live with their sons. Increase in lifespan spikes chronic diseases and disabilities leading to dependence.

In the elderly group, widows outnumber the widowers making them all the more vulnerable to abuse. Majority of the times, sons or the daughters-in-law are reported to be the perpetrators though other family members also indulge in abuse.

Abuse takes on various forms; verbal abuse is seen resulting in yelling, criticising. Elders are deprived of basic necessities like food and medical treatment. Financial exploitations also happen. In severe cases, physical abuse like slapping, beating, even abandonment occurs.

Financial dependence, physical limitations and illnesses increase abuse. There are many tell-tale signs of abuse which an alert relative, neighbour or a doctor can make out like fractures attributed to “a fall”, a shabby look, refusal to talk, unexplained bruises and cuts etc.

Reporting of a serious and sensitive issue like this is still very low, ignorance being among the reasons. It is considered a social stigma since a family problem has to be settled from within to protect “family honour.”

The government is trying to tackle the problem by developing support services, providing benefits to the elderly like concessional travel, health insurance and old-age pensions. Further, there are laws to ensure elder safety. It is mandatory for the children to take care of their parents or provide them with maintenance, failing which they could face jail!

For another generation in India, elder care will be primary responsibility of the family only. A little respect and love to those who gave it all for us is definitely not too much to ask for.

(Chaukimath is Professor and Head, Department of Psychiatry and Shailaja is Professor and Head, Department of Community Medicine, BLDE (Deemed to be University) Shri B M Patil Medical College, Vijayapura)

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Struggle in the sunset years

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