Abused and abandoned: The ageing population in India faces a scary future

HelpAge India survey revealed 44 per cent elders face abuse in public spaces of India. Photo courtesy: HelpAge India Photograph:( Others )

WION Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Jun 15, 2017, 11.56 AM (IST) Subuhi Safvi

Ageing comes with a loss of independence, a loss of power and all that with a loss of physical and mental ability. Traditionally, Indian parents relied on their children, specifically their sons, for support after their retirement. India's population is ageing. There are almost 104 million elderly persons in the country. The number of people over 60 has increased from 5.6 per cent in 1961 to 8.6 per cent in 2011.  The advancements in medical science combined with the lower birth rate has left a larger number of elders dependent on fewer children. 

In the earlier set up of a joint family, the elderly men remained the head of the households, making decisions until their deaths. In this age of nuclear family, people might make their life decisions with advice from their elders but it is not necessarily the only advice they will look for. This shift in decision-making power from the elders to the next generation is the consequence of a confluence of social and economic factors, such as increasing mobility and early economic independence. But a sad and, perhaps, unintended fallout of this shift has left a significant number of elderly population in India either abandoned or abused within their homes. The worst part of the story is, increasing number of elders are getting abused for their property.

According to the WHO, elder abuse can be defined 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". This abuse does not have to be physical, sexual or mental, it can also take the form of neglect and can be intentional or unintentional. 

Elders worry about having their valuables stolen, about not receiving help in case of an emergency and even being purposely manhandled in public spaces

Often the mistreatment comes from the growing frustrations of a stressful life. For instance, people come home from a difficult day at work after facing seemingly unending traffic with little patience to spend time with their ageing parents. The isolation or the loneliness of the elderly people is often exacerbated by their remote connection with the rapidly changing world of technology. Most of them are not well-versed on modern gadgets and, thus, find it difficult to stay in touch family members living far away. 

On the occasion of UN's World Elder Abuse Awareness Day 2017, Help Age India has released a report, “How India treats its elderly.” The report found that 64 per cent of elders enjoys going out but they find it difficult to navigate the public sphere. On top of this, 44 per cent among these elders reported experiencing abuse in public spaces. Bangalore was the worst among the 19 cities covered; 70 per cent of elders experience abuse in public spaces of Bangalore.

“I want to go out but the problem is that I cannot drive myself and my family is not always free to take me. As a result, I end up staying at home for weeks on end. My body is not as it was. So plans for outings have to include good toilets and resting places since I get tired easily,” said Hasan*. “Of course when I was younger, I would be out every night, playing bridge with my friends. Now, I have to wait for my children and grandchildren to visit even for conversation.”

Elders have reported being ignored when they asked for help or directions. Despite the seats assigned to them in public transport, they are often yelled at by younger people, unwilling to give up that space. Some have reported being shoved or pushed aside and have had their feet stepped on by people in a rush. 

I can see in their eyes they are getting annoyed and that frustrates me even more

In the separate lines for senior citizens at banks, 13 per cent reported rude treatment from bank staff and 10 per cent reported facing rude treatment from the other customers at the bank. Elders worry about having their valuables stolen, about not receiving help in case of an emergency and even being purposely manhandled in public spaces. As a result, despite their loneliness and social isolation, 36 per cent avoid going out of their homes.

Of course, as their own bodies fail them, their value decreases even to themselves. Apart from the physical frailty and motor slowness, many also have difficulty remembering the simplest things. Consequently, they often repeat the same question much to the annoyance of their families. “I know my family is being patient with me but it is frustrating having to live with the loss of memory,” said Lata.* “I can see in their eyes they are getting annoyed and that frustrates me even more. It is like when I taught my child a difficult maths equation, it took a long time but I was patient, of course, the difference is that I am an adult.”

In the years before nuclear families, grandparents would spend a lot of time with their grandchildren. And grandparents played a nurturing role: teaching morals, playing with them, singing lullabies. Spending time with an elder also taught kids to have more patience, since they saw for themselves the kind of physical restrictions elderly people have. These days children usually only visit their grandparents occasionally during holidays. Even if the grandparent lives with them, the kids will not always end up interacting with them a lot, being busy with school and countless tuitions. 

Unfortunately, our consumerist culture seems to have little space for anyone or anything that does not give us any benefit. Spending time helping the elderly appears to be one of the casualties of this development. But having said that, we also need to keep in mind that the issue of negligence might be a generation gap that could possibly be addressed with an open mind on all sides.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the speakers