The very few who responded to my yesterday’s post, ‘Coming of (Old)Age in India‘ could be divided into two groups with opposing views.
One is shocked with children neglecting or even abusing the parents who nursed them from infancy. They are sad about the elders being kept in old-age homes, abandoned or put to sleep.
The other group feels that it is nothing unusual and that the modern youth, with both spouses employed, cannot be expected to take care of the parents. “They don’t have the time” even if they have the resources.
Row houses, pent-houses and villas are a part of the deliberate, conscious, effort of affluent modern young men and women to keep the parents out of their lives. Privacy is the name of the game. They can escape seeing the ‘oldies’ for days together. The few times they cross each other, the conversation is limited to monosyllables. Most often ‘golden silence’ prevails.
The grandson is instructed by his mother not to speak to the grandparents and to ignore them even when they call him. The servants are told not to do what the ‘oldies’ ask them to. If they still serve the old people it is only because their poverty has kept alive their culture of respecting the aged. It has not killed in them that useless appendage to the mind, called conscience. Affluence has not wiped it out as yet.
No one pities or sympathizes with these aged. All would think they are living happily with their children and grandchildren in luxury homes. Not all old people are that ‘fortunate’. There also are many who do live literally in outhouses of their sons’ grand houses, in old-age homes, in ancestral village homes while their progeny enjoy life of urban luxury.
Some, live alone in city apartments while sons or daughters working abroad. Some live on footpaths, abandoned by the children they brought up at great sacrifice. A story that did rounds for months on WhatsApp tells of a mother on her death-bed in an old-age home making a last wish — donate some cooling fans to the home. Why this wish when she lived there for years without AC or fans? “I am on way out and do not need them, but used to air-conditioners, you will suffer when your children send you here,” she says.
The country was shocked and stunned when Aamir Khan, in his thought-provoking talk show ‘Satyameva Jayate’, devoted one episode to the plight of the aged . He brought to light an investigative report by a woman journalist on how in south Tamil Nadu there was a ritualistic ending of the lives of old parents after a ceremonial ‘head bath’.
The exposure may have reduced this ‘abominable practice’ to the same extent as the socially accepted custom of child marriage in Rajasthan and Bihar was reduced by enacting a law against it. Both practices continue as we, a ‘civilized modern society’, sweep them under the carpet to pretend that they do not exist.
The Tamil Nadu practice, perhaps, was what the aged parents wanted – at least a substantial number of them. It could be that many of them themselves chose it. Ritualizing it by giving it a religious colour or making it a tradition cleared the conscience of the sons (daughters have no say in such matters) who practiced it and those who participated in it.
For the willing aged it may be a welcome escape from the harsh reality of existing in a country which is no haven for senior citizens. Indian health-care system provides for hospitals but not hospices. Geriatrics as a medical specialization is unheard of.
Doctors prescribe surgeries like by-pass or dialysis for 80-year-olds, with an eye on the money they can make from such procedures, rather than the patients’ well-being. The rule that a doctor’s prime duty is to save lives is adhered to in its (more profitable) letter rather than its spirit. They are unconcerned about the physically and mentally painful quality of the lives so ‘saved’.
The number of the aged people who pray for death, who see it as a deliverance from a life of pain, worthlessness and a burden on those they love, may be much higher than what is believed.
Thousands of bed-ridden people leading a vegetative existence may prefer to end the ordeal. But very few try as they do not know how to do it painlessly. Or they have the fatalistic belief that it was their Karma – that they were destined to live on. Most of those who do not try to end it may perhaps be deterred only by the fear that pain and suffering may precede death, as it does most of the time.
The destination is desirable and reaching it is inevitable, but the road is a difficult one. They lack the courage to step on to it. A sudden, painless, death is what most people want and hope for, rather than a long life. Very few may want to be blessed to “live a hundred years” (Sau saal Jiyo). Longevity is no more a blessing. Many may consider it a curse.
These are the issues I wanted to deal with in the book that may never come out: THE OUTHOUSE ON THE FIRST FLOOR -Coming of (Old)Age In India.