From invaluable to invalid

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Part I

“Those who respect the elderly pave their own road toward success.”

— African proverb

Elders – those who are 65 or above – represent a large portion of our society. Those who are from 65 to 74 years old are known as ‘Early Elderly’ while those who are above 75 are known as ‘Late Elderly’.

 This group of the population is a blessing to society as they are considered the wiser, mentally more mature, and most experienced. Although many of the elderly are retired, similarly, a large number of them are still engaged in work – either self-employed or working in private or public sector. In that way, they still are actively involved in contributing to the country’s economic development.

Also, the younger children of working parents are kept in the safety and care of this elderly population of Sri Lanka.

As a predominantly Buddhist country and a South Asian country, Sri Lanka’s culture is shaped by mainly Buddhist, then Hindu, and Islamic ideologies and cultural values, in which the family is given great importance and considered the vitally important unit of the society. These families are typically considered a unit of grandparents, parents, and children, with close relatives are either living together in the same house or close by. It is the duty and responsibility of elders and the younger generation to take care of each other. Unlike in the Western world where putting elders in a care home is the norm, retired and weak elders in South Asian countries typically live with their families until death.

From treasure to burden

However, as society changed, the concept or the definition of family also changed. Family – the most basic social unit – was probed even more and the term nuclear family which essentially dropped the grandparents from the family came to be. Families with grandparents also living in were defined as extended families. With this alienation of grandparents, taking care of them gradually stopped being a norm and started becoming an economic and social burden.

In no time, the idea of home for the elderly was introduced in Sri Lanka and an annual day dedicated to seeing their older parents and elders was marketed following western social trends. Older grandparents and elders living with younger family members were considered an extra responsibility and even a violation of the younger ones’ liberty and privacy.

Worshiping, respecting, and honouring elders gradually came to be considered as out-dated, old-fashioned, and unwanted practices of the conservative Asian mind-set while considering elders as an invalid group of people of the society and discrimination against age (ageism) also settled in the society.

What is elder abuse?

According to the United Nations (UN), 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”. The fact that UN has decided to step up and address elder abuse by dedicating a special day for elder abuse awareness called ‘World Elder Abuse Awareness Day’ which falls on 15 June every year, shows that it has now become a global social issue which affects the health and human rights of millions of older persons around the world. It is an issue which deserves the attention of the international community.

Elder abuse, although a serious social problem in not just the developing world but also in the developed countries as well, gets little recognition and/or response since it is often hidden away from the public’s eye and considered a taboo. Even today it is considered to be a private matter rather than a social issue which it is, and mostly underestimated and ignored by societies across the world. However, the accumulating evidence show otherwise and indicate that elder abuse is an important public health and societal problem.

Elder abuse is a problem that typically underreported globally. According to UN the prevalence rates or estimates exist only in selected developed countries — ranging from 1 to 10 per cent. “Although the extent of elder mistreatment is unknown, its social and moral significance is obvious. As such, it demands a global multifaceted response, one which focuses on protecting the rights of older person,” the UN states.

The UN further emphasises that elder abuse is not just a health issue but a deep social, psychological issue that needs to be promptly addressed. However, the organisation warns that unless both primary healthcare and social service sectors are well equipped to identify and deal with the problem, elder abuse will continue to be underdiagnosed and overlooked.

What are the forms of elder abuse?

The National Centre on Elder Abuse (NCEA) in the USA breaks elder abuse down into seven different types.

They are as follows;

– Neglect

– Physical abuse

– Sexual abuse

– Abandonment

– Emotional or psychological abuse

– Financial abuse

– Self-neglect

According to the official website of Nursing Home Abuse Centre, the types of elder abuse go beyond physical and emotional harm. Elders can be subjected to sexual assaults, financial exploitation, abandonment, and more.

Their research further says that most types of elder abuse are committed by trusted individuals such as family or nursing home staff. Elders can sometimes mistreat themselves through self-neglect as a result of depression and poor facilities.

According to the NCEA, elders are more likely to self-report financial exploitation than emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect. Psychological abuse is the most common type of elder abuse, according to the NCEA.

Being a prisoner of his own home

In Sri Lanka, we hear cases about how elderly people are neglected by their own families or abandoned on the roads, or ill-treated in their own homes. In such situations, the Police intervene and rescue the victims. These are not yet common in the Sri Lankan society but, with the rising number of homes for the elderly and eldercare services, it seems that the older generation is considered a burden by the younger generation of Sri Lanka.

This story was shared with us by 77-year-old Rohini Withana, a retired Government officer. She shared a tragic incident that happened to her father while living with his granddaughter. This has happened decades ago and now he is no more.

Simon Zoysa who was 89 years old was of the habit of reading the daily morning newspapers sitting in the front garden, with the gate kept half-opened. He kept the gate half-open as he could see the road and the people walking. Some of them would greet him, and exchange a word or two with him. Zoysa was all alone in the house as there was no one to keep him company. His granddaughter was the boss of the house and would not tolerate any loud noise inside the house.

After some time she created a big issue by saying that the chair that was kept inside the house should not be daily taken out to the garden and also the gate should not be kept open. This was the usual morning routine of old Zoysa and the only activity he would do.

To stop him from this, the granddaughter had broken the chair and thrown it away and forbidden any other chairs to be taken to the garden. Nonetheless, she grumbled and requested the grandfather to go and live in the house of the other daughter as he was disturbing her.

The other daughter, living next door, was not happy to welcome her father. A few months ago, she and her husband covered the little gate that would connect the two houses as Zoysa would often visit the house. This house was the house built by Zoysa with his hard-earned money and given to his youngest daughter during her marriage.

However, as the granddaughter insisted, Zoysa was taken to the main house. Tragically, he was given the little pantry area to live in despite the house consisting four large bedrooms, and one office room.

 As Rohini, his unmarried daughter narrated the story to us, he was heartbroken, but never uttered a word. He silently withstood it all. For seven more years, he spent his life in the little room like an unwanted prisoner in his own house.

 “My father was a dedicated father, a hardworking man. He would work, earn money and do household chores, at a time when a man doing household chores was looked down upon. But during his last years, my own sisters treated him as an unwanted, burden. This is why I decided not to live with any of my family members during my old age. I saved up some money and now live alone. But in Sri Lanka, we need more services and facilities for elderly people. Else, our lives are sad and often depressed. We don’t want to feel unwanted,” Rohini said.

Stories like these go unnoticed as they are not really seen as abuse. However, mental harassment is also a form of elder abuse. The feeling of being unwanted and a burden, and the verbal harassment felt by Zoysa is now common for many other elderly persons in the country and it takes a huge psychological toll on them, making them feel depressed and tragic. Also, as these are mostly domestic abuse, they often go unnoticed and un-reported so legal action is seldom taken.

Grandparents are not nannies or servants

Seeta is 76 and a retired school teacher from Galle. She and her husband were asked by their son to come and live with him in Colombo, with his family. His wife was pregnant during this time. Seeta is a serious arthritis patient and has walking difficulties.

“I was not happy to come as my legs are hurting a lot. Travelling is not comfortable for me. But as my son needed help and my daughter-in-law was pregnant with her first child, we decided to come.”

Seeta was actually brought to Colombo as a domestic helper to the new family. After the new baby was born she had no time to rest, have her usual evening nap, do some gardening, read a book, or even visit the temple. Cleaning, washing, and cooking were her tasks.

Seeta also said that if anything goes wrong her daughter-in-law would complain and her own son would get upset with her. This continued for years and as her arthritis worsened significantly, she ultimately decided to return to her home in the village.

“After about six years, they were expecting a second child and I was called once again. We are parents and we want to support our children even if we are weak. But this time my arthritis was terrible and I couldn’t go. For this, my son got angry with me and is not talking to me for two years now. I have not seen my second grandson.”

Seeta’s story is common in Sri Lanka. Many grandparents, after retirement, are engaged in taking care of their grandchildren, often ignoring their own mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing. The verbal abuse they go through when they fail to perform their ‘duties’, the often neglected needs of theirs and being seen as a replacement for domestic helpers and nannies is another form of elder abuse.

In Sri Lanka, this is a subject area which serious research is needed to be conducted and national policies should be brought to provide services for the growing older population.

To be continued…

“An elderly person at home [is like] a living golden treasure.”

— A Chinese saying

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy