An elderly vendor displaying imitation jewelry in her hand waits for customers on a street in Mumbai, India, on March 3, 2022. (Photo: AFP)
While violent crimes against frail senior citizens easily gain public attention, it is the daily harassment by avaricious and neglectful sons and daughters that is the unkindest cut of all.
This is the “elephant in the room” -- the abuse and neglect of the elderly at home. No one speaks about it. Everyone pretends it doesn’t exist. And yet, in every city in India, it is a growing reality.
The older pattern of family life, not just in India, but the world over, was the joint – or extended – family, where three generations of the larger family lived under one roof.
The joint family was ideally suited to agrarian life and rural prosperity. It shielded against bereavement and financial loss. In the joint family, children were pampered and elders were respected.
But the joint family wasn’t always that blissful. It was hostile to young adults, especially to young women. How truly was it said, 'On marriage, a man didn’t acquire a wife. Rather, a family obtains a daughter-in-law, put her the least in the pecking order.'
Endless indeed are the stories of domineering mothers-in-law, or aggressive brothers-in-law, eager to claim their 'sexual rights' over the young bride.
But times change, and so do the values of people. The industrial revolution and urbanization have changed family life.
Not only have our homes grown smaller, but so have our hearts.
The goal of family life today is no longer offspring but the exclusive pleasure of the couple, and this has come about through the empowerment of women.
With the spread of education and their increasing employment, women want a fair share in running a home. And one of the first demands of the young bride is, no resident in-laws, please!
Then effective contraceptive methods have meant fewer children. The patriarchal family may have had ten or twelve children, the modern nuclear family has two, and increasingly, just one.
The Western template of family life has been eagerly copied by modern families everywhere, resulting in tension between younger married couples who want the freedom to behave as they will, and their older parents/in-laws still bound by tradition.
Family beatitude has come to be measured solely in materialistic terms – a second home in the hills, frequent vacations, vehicles, and pets. Children are packed off to boarding schools, and aged parents to convalescent homes.
Violence and deceit in the family
While more elderly people are likely to complain today of abuse from their offspring, the majority of cases still go unreported. The reasons for this are interesting. The elderly fear violent retribution, especially if they share their home with aggressive relatives.
Besides, many aged persons are ashamed to have to complain against members of one’s own family.
The main reason for discord in families is property, and the avaricious desire to have more. Aged women are frequently ignorant of the need to make a will, and become the victims of unscrupulous relatives.
Another common reason is the incompatibility of character, an instinctive dislike of someone – in this case, in-laws --based on differences of background, caste or creed.
Earlier, it was expected that women would be compliant and accepting of their husband’s relatives. But as they rise in status and economic strength, few women today are inclined to play the maidservant to their husband’s aged relatives.
This is yet another spin-off of that individualism, so rampant in modern life, and the cause of so much envy, and divorce.
The larger question is: does the nuclear family fulfill the needs of its members, not just financially, but emotionally as well?
If the rising incidence of divorce, violence between the spouses, and the neglect of children is any indication, smaller families are not always better families.
The violence and hostility toward the old and infirm in the home is yet another proof of the fragility of the modern family.
What is the solution?
What then? Is the only solution for the old and infirm to place them in “homes for the aged”?
To me, such “homes” like orphanages, boardings, brothels, and prisons are ways in which society as a whole tries to make up for its failures to love and care for the weak and infirm. They are not ideal by any means but are better than nothing.
In his classic, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, the psychologist Carl Jung said most of the maladies of the modern world can be traced to the abandonment of a religious view of life. Indeed, all our ideals today are materialistic.
And what does recovering a religious view imply? The New Testament said it long ago: “True religion means helping the widow and the orphan in their distress and keeping oneself untarnished by the world” (James 1.27).
We have plenty of religious pageantry around us, but too little of “true” religion. Perhaps this is why so many of us treat the elderly members of our families with violence and hatred, to our shame and that of our nation.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.