“For those who are always courteous and respectful of elders, four things increase; life, beauty, happiness, and strength.”
— Gautama Buddha
The two true stories we presented to you in our last week’s article are examples of how elders go through various abuse and harassment in our society. As our cultural and social norms are being changed, sometimes negatively, elders are being neglected, harassed, and abused often. Physical abuse and rarely sexual abuse faced by elders we hear through media shock the nation as they are not our accepted cultural norms, values, and morals to ill-treat and harass the elders. However, mental abuse and harassment faced by elders are forms of elder abuse that go mostly unnoticed in Sri Lanka as in the stories we have presented.
Sri Lankan culture and society that has been mainly shaped by Buddhist ideologies is a culture that is generally kind, compassionate, and caring towards the old, needy, invalid, and the helpless. Especially in Sri Lankan families, elders and older parents are loved and well-cared for, and considered treasures. As per the teachings of the Buddha, it is the duty and responsibility of the children and the younger generation to take care of their parents, elders, and older citizens. This is known as a meritorious act and is explained in a large number of Buddhist suttas.
However, as our society is also going through societal changes, and we sometimes blindly embrace global trends, in this process, some of our traditional morals and values are being humiliated, discriminated and forgotten. In Sri Lanka, this drastic societal and cultural change can be seen as a major reason that elders face abuse and harassment.
To know more about this we contacted sociologist, and lecturer in Sociology at the University of Colombo, Jagath Wellawatta.
Elder abuse in Sri Lanka
“Verbal and physical actions that hinder a person’s mental and physical health, distract a person’s development, and are an obstacle for betterment, can be seen as abuse. When it comes to elder abuse, things that are done and said to make elders mentally and physically unhealthy, sad and uncomfortable, are forms of elder abuse”, he said.
He said that sometimes we have heard of incidents where old parents were locked up in dog cages, being dumped at some unknown place, or physically harassed. But these are not common incidents in Sri Lanka. The most common form of elder abuse in Sri Lanka is mental harassment.
“This means, elders being left alone in their homes, with no one to take care of them and children are not visiting them at least once in a while. In such situations, elders suffer due to loneliness and go through a lot of sadness.”
In Sri Lanka, physical harassment and abuse are not common and such acts are often seen as criminal behaviour and are highly discriminated against and rejected by society.
Elder abuse and home for the aged in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has a large number of homes for elders and the number keeps growing and therefore, we asked the sociologist about this and if this has an impact on elder abuse in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lankan society had extended families, where uncles, aunts, grandparents, and grandchildren all lived and shared lives together. Even in Europe, it was like that before. However, as society changed and modern urbanisation and westernisation spread, younger generations migrated and settled in cities or foreign countries. In most cases, they do not return back. In such situations, parents are isolated in their homes and are left all alone.
“Traditionally, Sri Lankans are devoted and committed towards family members and towards their society,” he said. “However, as societal changes happen, people become more and more self-centred and isolated. Individuality has come forward and people think less as a group or as a unit.”
He also said that privacy has become a major concern and not taking care of others or being committed to others and also, these societal changes have created more and more isolated citizens.
In this social context, old parents and elders feel helpless and ignored.
The family unit has also changed. Sri Lankan families today are mostly nuclear families. Grandparents live separately. These lifestyle changes are a reason for people to choose a home for the aged to spend their dusk years.
In many developed countries of the West, retirement homes and elderly care is a developed service, said Wellawatta.
These elder homes are where elders choose to go and spend their last years of life as they have a secured and safe life. They are paid services and physical healthcare, mental health care as well as entertainment are provided for them.
“But the situation of our elderly homes and children’s homes is completely different from this.
“In Sri Lanka Homes are like places where the orphans, poor, needy, and helpless find sanctuary and shelter. They are in a sad state. When elders become helpless, and homeless, they are being dumped into these homes.”
He further explained that most of these homes are not up to the standards, and the given guidelines are often ignored and not properly managed. Most of them are state-run homes.
Therefore, the poor quality of these homes has become an issue in Sri Lanka that should be looked into. Secondly, as we have explained above, Sri Lanka is a country that is kind towards elders and believes that children must take care of the elders. Although the societal and cultural norm and moral is to take care of elders, what happens now is the exact opposite of it. Elders being dumped in homes and elders being neglected have become a serious issue.
Elders also have an attitude that they want to live in their own homes, even alone as that makes them comfortable. Hence, these Homes, in terms of culture and morality, are indeed a huge abuse of elders; as making our elders live in homes is not considered a morally correct thing for us Sri Lanka.
Homes are a better solution; but they must be well managed
Yet, societal change and evolution is an inevitable trend and therefore, homes for the elderly are seen as one solution for providing safe and secure lifestyles for lonely elders, explained the Sociologist.
When children migrate, and never return, elders who are left alone sometimes fall sick and become weak. There is no one to take care of them. In such situations, an elderly home is a better solution.
“This is why these homes and elder care services of Sri Lanka should be up to the standards, well managed, and be of high quality. Facilities should be provided to the elders in these homes. Also, their mental health should be a priority.”
He also explained that in Europe, elderly care services are of high quality and children pay and get their service for older parents. For example in Italy, there is a large demand for Sri Lankans as elderly care services.
“So, we need a solution like this in Sri Lanka.
“As our society and culture have a background that is based on Buddhism, we must take care of our elders and elder abuse cannot be accepted at all.”
He also said that Sri Lanka, compared to many other countries, to date, is a society that is kind and compassionate towards elders. Children somehow take care of elders as it is in their consciousness to do so.
“Our society is a child-centric society. Parents and elders do everything, even sometimes the impossible for their children. Sometimes they sacrifice their needs to fulfil the needs of children. Children also in return take care of their parents and elders.”
In some European countries such as Germany, working citizens automatically enter a social protection system. The money they earn is more than enough for them to live and maintain a comfortable lifestyle.
“But in Sri Lanka, our parents spend all their earnings, and savings on children. They have the expectation or feeling, that children will one day take care of them,” said Wellawatta.
He further emphasised that in present-day Sri Lanka the main form of elder abuse and harassment is the loneliness and mental helplessness and isolation faced by Sri Lankan elders.
He also said that children who are settled in cities send money to their parents, but for parents, this is not important. Those who live in villages can actually financially manage themselves by the fruits or vegetables grown in their gardens. For them, the most important thing and need are that the children come and stay with them and take care of them.
Elders should be respected and valued
According to Wellawatta, another way of Sri Lankan elders are mentally pressured are the many new social and cultural trends and also terms and phrases that mock old age.
“We live in an e-society and sometimes some elders cannot move along with this society. They are not compatible with new technology. Still, in Sri Lanka, some elders don’t wear slippers and dress humbly. Most of them have not embraced western or modern lives. This makes them mentally abused and makes them feel isolated or marginalised. Elders think we are not suitable for our modern children and their lifestyles.”
Maintaining healthy bonds with elders
He also said that distance is not always a cause of difficulty in maintaining healthy relationships with older parents and family members. He said that in western countries, children leave home at a very early age, live separately, but visit their parents at least once a week, send flowers and cards, go on vacations with them and so on, and maintain the children-parent relationship.
But in Sri Lanka, even though we have embraced certain things from the West, we have failed to learn positive traits such as maintaining good healthy bonds with parents and high-quality elder care services.
“In parallel to our societal and cultural changes, our morals, values and good attitudes have severely deteriorated,” Wellawatta expressed his concern.
He further explained that the indicator that is being used in this regard is the cultural morals, and virtues of our traditional society. Although we have a cultural legacy of 2,500 years, and the ideal society we believe in is such, in reality, what we have today is totally the opposite of this. Practically, we do not follow and apply our values and traditions in this regard.
The society we live in today is a society which is mainly based on modern western cultural ideologies where individuality is prioritised, selfish and a society where people who are not considerate or sensible towards others.
According to Wellawatte, there is a huge difference between the traditional society and the newly-evolved one with western values. The two social types often clash and, “This clash gives birth to many negative trends.”
“Respect your elders and the world will respect you.”
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy