“To make an elderly person happy is the noblest act a young person can ever do!” ― Mehmet Murat ildan
Ageing represents the closing period in the lifespan, a time when the individual reflects back on life, lives on past accomplishments and begins to finish off his/her life course. Adjusting to changes of old age requires that an individual starts developing new coping skills to be able to adapt to the changes that are common to this time in their lives (Warnick, 1995). The International Day of Older Persons is observed on October 1 each year. On December 14, 1990, the United Nations General Assembly voted to establish October 1 as the International Day of Older Persons. In India, any person who has attained the age of sixty years or above comes under the category of “senior citizen”. While reflecting on the status of old age, there are nearly 104 million elderly persons (aged 60 years or above) in India; 53 million females and 51 million males. This was from the Population Census 2011. However, a report released by the United Nations Population Fund and HelpAge India suggests that the number of elderly persons is expected to grow to 173 million by 2026. With regard to rural and urban scenarios, 71% of the elderly population resides in rural areas while 29 % are in urban areas. Interestingly, State-wise data on elderly population revealed that Kerala has a maximum proportion of elderly people in its population (12.6 per cent) and the one with the lowest is Meghalaya (4.7 per cent).
In the North-Eastern States and Meghalaya being one of them, one of the great strengths of tribal tradition was to take care of the elders. In a practice whereby parents still lives with the children (youngest daughter) and grandchildren, the elderly persons find company and care in their own respective homes. The elders in the family and the community are valued. Their presence, wisdom, experiences, and knowledge are given high regard. Such values are deeply inculcated into the tribal communities through their upbringing which is seen less in the mainstream community. The elders are seen as the keepers of cultures and traditions, in particular with regard to his/her knowledge of the family, the clan and the tribe. They are esteemed in the family as they keep the family traditions and practices going. Family members are an important source of care for elders and this is mutually arranged and agreed upon by family members, which may include immediate families like siblings, cousins, grandchildren and others. Gradually, this trend has changed especially in contemporary societies who live in urban areas with far-flung families. Older persons, those who are retired or who are ill are left in the trust of maids/helpers at the time when the immediate family members are out to work or are working in another location or district. The tendency to leave their parents alone is something that has been noticed even amongst the tribals. Old age homes are also seen to have inmates multiplying at a steadfast rate. Case studies of an old age home in Shillong have revealed that most of the inmates have chosen to be admitted because the family members have blatantly refused to take care of them in their old age.
The most concerning issue that usually affects old age is their way of life and health. Good physical as well as mental health is what makes them age with grace. For the aged who are well taken care of in terms of food intake, medical care, regular check-up, financial security and children doing well in life, are filled with an optimistic approach to life and are also contributing in a big way to the society, the church and the family. Sadly, this may not be the case with all the elderly persons. Ageing research has demonstrated a positive correlation of someone’s religious beliefs, social relationships, perceived health, self-efficacy, socioeconomic status and coping skills, among others, with their ability to age more successfully (Singh and Misra, 2009). The aged, who are living alone or with working children and or busy family members, may face issues of loneliness which was found to be a significant contributor to poor self-rated health scores. Social isolation may result in numerous negative health consequences and it also affects mobility (Meyer and Schuyler, 2011). Depression is a prominent condition amongst older people, with a significant impact on the well-being and quality of life. Studies have demonstrated that the prevalence of depressive symptoms increases with age (Kennedy, 1996). These symptoms not only have an important place as indicators of psychological well-being but are also recognized as significant predictors of functional health and longevity. Longitudinal studies demonstrate that increased depressive symptoms are significantly associated with increased difficulties with activities of daily living (Penninx, 1998). Community-based data indicate that older persons with major depressive disorders are at increased risk of mortality (Bruce, 1994). There are also studies that suggest that depressive disorders may be associated with a reduction in cognitive functions (Speck, 1995).
Although, leaving the older persons on their own may not be done on purpose, but certain family circumstances like no offspring, poverty, children/family members employed outside the State/country or children choosing to live in a nuclear family setup may lead older people to be on their own. Unfortunately, there are also ample numbers of cases in the country whereby they (older people) are literally left to suffer in old age homes, begging in the streets, selling certain products to survive and some are left in the most horrendous situation one can possibly imagine. This is perhaps the reason why the country has felt the need to enact a law entitled “Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007” which is legislation, initiated by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India. The Act was initiated to provide more effective provision for the maintenance and welfare of parents and senior citizens. It makes it a legal obligation for children and heirs to provide maintenance to senior citizens and parents, by monthly allowance. It also provides a simple, speedy and inexpensive mechanism for the protection of life and property of the older persons. The Act was passed by the Parliament and received the President’s assent on December 29, 2007. However, it may be mentioned that many may not know of this law that protects senior citizens in India who are abused, abandoned and neglected. In a survey which was conducted by HelpAge India (2014), found that 50% of the elderly surveyed, including 48% men and 52% women, reported suffering abuse, and by abuse, it includes verbal, physical and emotional. It includes neglect, disrespect and or abandonment. A study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) in India, shows the existence of maltreatment, neglect, and disrespect within the society and community and the problems of abuse among older persons were more mental than physical. One of the study’s prime recommendations was that the need for counselling has emerged as a major component of solving the problem of elder abuse. It further stated that counselling could prove to be an important component of family therapy and the end result could be beneficial for both the younger as well as the older generation.
The theme for this year is “Pandemics: Do They Change How We Address Age and Ageing?”. If on normal situations, we get to witness such alarming figures of ill-treatment and unjust amongst our older citizens, one is really frightened to dig deep into the plight that they are going through during such a difficult phase. Senior citizens globally have been the worst-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. They are the most vulnerable with age-related comorbidities and in such unprecedented times, loneliness and mental health issues of the elderly people need special attention. This year’s theme has left us with a lot of contemplation to be done. Has the pandemic changed the status of the aged? Has it got better or has it only worsen? Calls for serious introspection on our roles as young ones. . .
(The writer can be reached at [email protected])