With surveys showing high incidents of elderly abuse, is it time to ask if the elderly are better off in other living arrangements?

SC says its cruel to separate husbands and parents but are parents best cared for by sonsImage for representation only
Voices Elder Care Sunday, October 09, 2016 - 13:59

The Supreme Court’s recent judgement in a divorce case – where the husband sought divorce partly on the grounds that the wife wanted to separate him from his family – has prompted strong reactions from women’s rights activists. The court has blamed ‘western thinking’ to have affected the wife’s values (in her need to separate from her in-laws and live independently with the husband), and has stated that such sentiments are ‘against traditional Indian/Hindu culture’.

By doing so, the court has effectively set a precedent that a woman can be issued a divorce, if she admits her inability to ‘adjust’ with her in-laws. One key question that has gone unnoticed in this episode though, is whether the elderly are merely being used as pawns to secure convenience for the man in question?

I ask this because I don’t think the elderly are always better off staying with their children and/or in-laws.

A survey by the Agewell Foundation in June this year (involving 3400 elderly people across India) found that the elderly suffered various forms of abuse – physical harassment/assault (9%), denial of basic needs (13%), mental torture (13%), restrictions on social life (20%), and misbehavior/ill treatment (37%).  Elderly women were prone to greater abuse than men. The findings were consistent irrespective of whether the elderly lived in rural or urban India, and whether they had a source of income or not.

Clearly, these statistics also show that ‘traditional Hindu/Indian values’ of treating the elderly with respect and dignity are being violated frequently. So what is the court going to do about this new reality? Push for the revival of the joint family system, led solely by the daughters-in-law, or for reforms in the area of elder care – financial, health-oriented, and emotional?

Increasingly, living with the elderly seems to have just one perceived benefit for all parties involved – financial savings. (I can sense the traditionalists, led by my mother, waiting to hurl abuses at me, but I will continue nevertheless). Most young men live with their parents with the sole objective of saving on paying rent and with an eye on the imminent ownership of their parents’ property. The wife, in many cases being a stay at home mother/woman, tends to have the sole responsibility of caring for the elderly, and any children.

The men of the house are content merely providing fixed amounts of money for provisions, medicines and other needs. When was the last time you saw a son take his wheelchair-bound father for a walk in the park? Or for a medical check-up? When children themselves don’t want to spend time with their parents, how reasonable is it to expect a daughter-in-law to suddenly turn Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa bundled into one?

Even if children want to live with their parents, how many actually understand the needs of the elderly? These are not toddlers, but men and woman who have seen better days, lived a life of respectability, raised families, enabled their children to seek a decent livelihood, and are now a shadow of their former selves. They can be very stubborn, interfering (by today’s standards) and unwilling to change or ‘adjust’. They don’t need charity or pity, but respect and support.

Unfortunately, they get neither of these from their children. Beyond helping their elderly parents pop a pill and walk a few steps with support, there is little that young people today understand of their parents’ needs.

And perhaps rightfully so. Most of us have grown up remembering how our parents controlled us using the lines ‘this is for your own welfare’. We now use the same logic when denying them the little pleasures of life. Tit for Tat, what’s wrong with that? I remember my parents telling me and my brother, that since they earned money to provide for us, they had the right to run the house on their terms.

And by that argument, when we started earning and contributing to the house expenses, we could also make rules for others to follow. (My parents also tried several other softer tactics to enforce their rule in the house, but what stuck with me is this argument centred around money.) If I were to apply that logic, (and I do so, in jest, whenever they visit me), my parents would find it difficult to live with me permanently.

Although I love my parents, I don’t believe I am equipped (mentally and physically) to supervise them for the rest of their lives, said a close friend. For starters, he (and his wife) would not have the time to spend with parents for quality conversation and would end up paying for local help to care for them during the day. It’s no different with my child, he says. He and his wife (like many of us) have careers so their children can get independent soon, and they can save enough to get the right kind of support in their old age.

That is one of the models that the Indian courts can promote, even if it is borrowed from so-called-western philosophy. (I vaguely remember reading that in the Vedic era, the concept of ‘sanyas’ involved the elderly moving away from families and living solitary lives in their quest to meet their maker. More recently, the concept of visiting pilgrimage centres (‘teerthasthal’) to spend the last days was fairly common. Not so western after all?).

A distant relative faced social stigma when he and his wife, then in their 60s, chose to move to an assisted living facility for the elderly in South India. His children were ridiculed and it was felt they would die neglected by their sons.

Fast forward 10 years, and they couldn’t be happier or healthier. The children visit them two or three times a year when the entire family goes on vacation. They spend quality time with the grandchildren and the daughters- and sons-in-law are polite and well behaved.

On the contrary, there isn’t one elderly person in our family circles living with their son/daughter, who doesn’t criticise their existence. They remain unhappy, weak and undernourished. Most of them have weekly fights with the daughter-in-law, blaming everyone but themselves and their sons for their problems.

Successful assisted care living may not be a fit for everyone, but this is still a financially viable model, that the government (and courts), can facilitate by encouraging people to look at the benefits and remove the stigma attached to it. Alternatively, one must also encourage saving for one’s old age first, and then for children’s marriage and education.

Elderly existence within families is a white elephant that is increasingly related to social breakdown. Instead of taking the bull by the horns, we are looking for softer targets to attribute blame.

In the recent divorce case, I am curious to know how much time the man spent with his own parents, before expecting his wife to do the same for the rest of her life. When she refused, which is brave and honest of her to admit, he sought a divorce. Perhaps it would have been simpler to hire part-time help to care for his parents (if necessary) and segregate duties among family members? 

(Archana Venkat is a marketing leader who believes the elderly are not expendable and need to live meaningful lives.)

Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.

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