Friday, August 8, 2014

Humans of India - Show some humanity towards the elderly, could you?

It was a cold winter night in the middle of January. I'd been trying to settle into an early-to-bed-early-to-rise regime for some time and my body clock was taking its own sweet time falling out of the erstwhile awake-all-night pattern. So despite having been utterly exhausted and lying in bed for well over two hours, I was wide awake when, at four in the morning, I heard a shuffling sound in the room. I opened my eyes and looked up somewhat cautiously. I couldn't see anything at first, but as my eyes gradually adjusted to the faint light of the AllOut, something came into view. A tall white figure was roaming around tentatively. For a couple of seconds it loomed large over my head like a wraith. My blood ran cold. I stayed as still as I could under the blanket, my eyes fixed on the figure all the time. It seemed to have lost its sense of direction; I heard it bumping into pieces of furniture twice before disappearing behind the curtain into the lobby.

I was left to wonder whether it was even real or just my morbid imagination playing games with my tired mind. As I was trying to figure out what to do, it suddenly struck me like a bolt of lightning. It was my grandfather. It had to be him! It was so typical of him to wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. For a second I felt stupid for not having thought of it earlier. (Wraiths? Seriously?)

As I lay there mentally berating myself (while secretly thanking my stars for no scary surprises) I heard another loud bump that brought me back to my senses. I jumped out of bed and groped my way into the lobby where I found grandpa fumbling around in the dark. I flicked on the light; he was taken aback and instinctively recoiled from me. I could sense how visibly shaken he was. I told him very gently who I was and where he was, and saw his expression gradually turn into one of relief, along with a hint of a sheepish smile. He told me how grateful he was for my having found him, else as he put it, "I would have kept lumbering around the house all night long - perhaps fallen down a few times and broken a bone or two". It was a depressing thought to picture. I escorted him back to his room and after making absolutely sure that he was safe, I went back to bed. But his scared and helpless face haunted my thoughts all night long. It made me sad, worried and, quite frankly, gave me the creeps too. It would suffice to say no sleep was had that night.

Why I am reminded of this bygone instance today is a particular article I read this morning in The Hindu. It was aptly titled 'The myth of Happy Old Age' as it very blatantly pointed at the sheer indifference and apathy with which people are treating their elders in India today. It made my heart bleed and my soul cringe to read through the lines - the nauseating reality of old age abuse recounted by elderly persons who are either forced to live with humiliation and penury in their own children's homes or left to die in old age institutions. HelpAge India, a charitable organization that has been tirelessly working for the welfare and rehabilitation of India's aged population for decades, recently released a report on elder abuse in India. The report is scathing in its disclosure of some shocking statistics on elder abuse in major Indian cities, which is surprisingly more prevalent than most of us would think.

It is as heart-rending as it is frustrating to realize what an uncaring, unfeeling and detached society we have turned into. Globalization, modernization, nuclearization of families and many such reasons could be given to explain why it is no longer practicable to care for the elderly or give them a place in our homes anymore. But all those foreign-adopted big words aside, are we no longer decent enough or even human enough to love our own elders and take care of them when they need us the most? It beats me how one can expect 60 or 70-year-olds - with their cataracts and knee pain, hearing and vision loss, fatigued hearts and countless other problems that ail their minds and bodies - to fend for themselves in a world where even hale and hearty people have to bite the dust so often? It saddens me to see the state our society has been reduced to, especially so in my own country. We take utmost pride in our cultural heritage, superior social institutions and traditional roots that are unlike anything seen anywhere else in the world. And yet, if one were to take a closer look, does that connection to our roots really exist anymore or is it just a subject of rosy fables?

I must quote a few lines from the poignantly written article from the newspaper to drive home my point.

Abuse, choked within and caged in silence festers like a sore. Fear and helplessness that there is no one else to depend upon and few to report to, adds to the penumbra of silence.

They point out quietly that old age has become a commodity. The younger generation commodifies old age by seeing the old as sources of pension, property, income. The old are like the goose that must lay the golden eggs and move on. Waiting for the old to die seems an unnecessary inconvenience. Yet, when the old have nothing more to give, they are seen as dispensable. Keshav, a 65-year-old from Kolkata, complains that his wife and he are constantly abused because they do not earn. His wife cooks for the entire family and yet they have to plead for a fair share of the food. Worse, as the report notes tersely, “even requests for medicine or clothes are met with taunts of their impending deaths and termed as a ‘waste’ on them.”
As a teenager I was volunteering with HelpAge India and paid a visit to an old age home in Delhi to tie rakhis/friendship bands onto the elderly ladies' and gentlemen's wrists as a gesture of love and respect. We also put up a cultural program for them and fed them sweets with our own hands. The tears in their eyes and the smiles on their faces were priceless, though the conditions in which they lived were worse than pitiful even to a kid like me who knew nothing of the world. That childhood experience is still writ all over my mind as I write this.

Where is the respect gone that the aged once commanded in our society? Let alone respect during life, there isn't dignity even in death any longer for so many of those who are left by their families to spend the rest of their years in old age homes. Is that how we should be repaying our parents and grandparents for the care and love they showered upon us when we were kids? I fail to see how any person in their right mind could subject their own parents or family to such disgrace and suffering. It shames me to be part of a society where such injustice and indifference is meted out to the most vulnerable and weak persons without so much as a blink of an eye. A society where the poor and the backward classes are little else but votebanks, and the elderly are nothing but commodities to be used and subsequently discarded when they stop serving their purpose.

My family is nowhere near perfect. It has seen its fair share of conflict, feuds and family politics, but at the end of the day it is still family. I am lucky enough to have three out of four grandparents alive. My nanaji (maternal grandfather) passed away 5 years ago at the age of 89. I had only ever known him in his old age, so I was a witness to his slow transition into a vegetative state over the years. He used to bring us candies and imli when we were younger. Then he got bedridden and stopped recognizing us. Gradually he stopped recognizing his own children. He would greet everybody warmly, but seldom recognize anybody except his wife and eldest daughter. It was a pain to watch him deteriorate thus. Once he went out into the night without anyone's knowledge and didn't return. Search parties went out the next morning and he was eventually found, comatose, in a park. He contracted pneumonia and we started losing him even quicker after that. 6th June 2009 was the fateful day; I remember how I cried. I was surprised at my own burst of emotions.

To watch my dadaji (paternal grandfather) exhibit similar symptoms now is extremely depressing. I have lived the first 20 years of my life in a joint family with my dada-dadi having been the family anchor. Although we moved out less than three years ago, we still visit regularly and have them come over and live with us often. Festivals are mostly spent there with the entire family. Sitting with my dadi and hearing her recount stories from my father's childhood, even for the umpteenth time, is invaluable. My grandpa has always had a soft corner for me too; he always liked me for my witty quips and calls me one of 'his team'. My parents, through their own example, have instilled unconditional respect in my heart for them and I know I'll always value my elders and my family, no matter what.

And perhaps that is why I don't understand how these people sleep at night, having ousted their very own parents out of their homes and lives. Who tells their children stories and oils their hair? Who teaches their kids about Indian culture and values? Oh right. They don't want their children to learn any of that anymore. The household help can feed and clothe them, school teachers can take care of everything they need to learn. Who needs elders when you have money and modern institutions, right? The grandparents clearly don't serve a fruitful purpose anymore and need to be 'let off'. As in fired from the job. As in left to fend for themselves at the very age when they need emotional, financial and medical support the most.
As a teacher I often ask my students — a sensitive lot — to talk about their grandmothers, to give me details about stories they have heard or food cooked. Most of them seemed embarrassed, surprised with such intrusive questions; only one could talk of his grandmother’s pickles with a zest that summoned a whole sensorium. For most of them, grandparents have become occasional question marks, ritual burdens. Few have recollections of stories told, preferring the narratives on TV or the Internet. It is almost as if grandparents are like creatures out of Tussauds; features that can be ignored. I asked one student to describe the touch of her grandmother. She almost felt repulsed exclaiming, “God, she is so old and scaly.” An absence of memories and ethos of sharing disrupts the ecology of old age. Dignity has become a rare word as abuse becomes the sociological constant.
If that is what modernity does to people - make them selfish, individualistic and thankless - then modernity be damned. I'd rather be old-school and not lose out on my values and humanity. And what lessons do children really learn from such acts of indifference and cruelty on part of their parents towards their grandparents? It is no wonder that the trend is perpetuating so fast. The couples who turn out their parents are most likely to meet the same fate at the hands of their own children one day. On the contrary, a lesson of love, care and gratitude towards the elderly, if taught by example, will foster a responsible and kind future generation. It isn't for nothing after all that the proverb goes, "as you sow, so shall you reap".

Elders are a social and cultural, if not economic, asset. They are worth being honoured, respected and taken care of, not only because they are the ones who for the longest time sacrificed their desires and comfort for your wellbeing, but also because they are dignified individuals and equal members of the society. They deserve the same respect as any younger earning member of the society would command. If their age accounts for anything, it must be to accord them extra privilege, as a tribute to their years of service to society and to ease the physical and financial troubles that invariably accompany old age and retirement. That's what we, as humans and responsible citizens of society, must accomplish in order to achieve the satisfaction of having done our duty as human beings, children and parents.


Rahul Gaba said...

Very Very well written! Though after the middle of third paragraph I could not help but imagine your 'sheep smile' while reading rest of the article, it was still very engaging! ;) Towards the end you answered the questions you started with - I strongly agree that your upbringing has a deep impact on our personality and approach towards situations in life. Values inclucated in childhood define our behavior towards others, especially elders.
You have been fortunate to have enjoyed time your grandparents. Everyone is not so blessed and also every individual is not capable enough to respect and embrace the companionship of family seniors. Wishing a happy time to you with your grandparents and best of health to them! :)

Nisha said...

My parents and in-laws are amazing people and we would definitely help them to any extent when the time comes. Having said that, our previous generation has been devious in many ways. Most mils did not treat their dils well. There were family feuds where one son got more than others. Fathers did not let their sons study for their own benefit. I can quote lots of examples where elders have been unfair to the children in many ways due to which some kids have no love and respect left for them.
Even today I hear so many stories of mils ill-treating their dils. In such conditions, the son is torn between his mother and wife. I am not saying parents should be treated the way they are being treated. But the fact remains that we need to look at the bigger picture and change for the better.We need to understand that the world is changing and behave accordingly.

I feel that our generation should brace up and not expect anything from the next one. We should spend on our children but save equally for our old age. We should stay healthy, have a good health insurance and consider ourselves our own guardians. If our children love us or not that is our destiny. But we should prioritize ourselves as well.

Coming back to my first statement, it is very important for parents to be fair to their kids and their spouses. Love and respect should come from both sides. Only then they can expect the same in old age.

My comment may sound a tad harsh... but I really believe this is the reality. If a current MIL tells her DIL that my son is your pawn and he is miserable with you and you are no good, how can anyone expect her to treat her well ever. It's all very sad, really. And Karma is a bitch in a lot of cases.