Veneration of our seniors is often considered the norm in India, but elder abuse certainly occurs. According to some estimates, the problem is growing.
Down to Earth reported earlier this year of the worrisome trend. The report by the publication cited the Longitudinal Ageing Study in India, which found that five percent of India’s seniors – those over sixty – said they experienced maltreatment in 2020. “Abuse of the elderly is a growing international problem with several manifestations in different countries and cultures,” Down to Earth outlined. “It is a fundamental violation of human rights and leads to several health and emotional problems. The abuse can [be] classified as physical, sexual, psychological or financial. The ill-treatment is relatively more frequent among elderly women and those living in rural areas, according to the report.”
Today marks Elder Abuse Awareness Day, an observance of importance and one which ought to instil messages we carry year-round. “Saying no to elder abuse is not to be commemorated every year only on June 15th, but it is something which should be instilled in our value system,” said Archana Sharma, founder and managing director of Samvedna Senior Care. Through awareness we can educate the younger generation of what constitutes elder abuse. It’s not okay to make our shortcomings a cause for abuse of the one who raised us with sacrifices, love and dedication.”
Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) states, elder abuse affects one in six people aged sixty and over, who reported in the last year that they “experienced some form of abuse in community settings during the past year. Rates of elder abuse are high in institutions such as nursing homes and long-term care facilities, with two in three staff reporting that they have committed abuse in the past year. Rates of elder abuse have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Elder abuse can lead to serious physical injuries and long-term psychological consequences. Elder abuse is predicted to increase as many countries are experiencing rapidly ageing populations.”
What is worrying is the data deficit. As the WHO outlines, “a 2017 study based on the best available evidence from 52 studies in 28 countries from diverse regions, including twelve low- and middle-income countries, estimated that, over the past year, 15.7 percent of people aged sixty years and older were subjected to some form of abuse. This is likely to be an underestimation, as only one in 24 cases of elder abuse is reported, in part because older people are often afraid to report cases of abuse to family, friends, or to the authorities. Consequently, any prevalence rates are likely to be underestimated. Although rigorous data are limited, the study provides prevalence estimates, drawing on all available studies, of the number of older people affected by different types of abuse.”
As such, one means of tackling the problem is to talk about it. As The New Indian Express profiled last year, elder abuse in India is a “silent evil.” Dr Debanjan Banerjee writes in granular, wrenching detail of the experiences of a 78-year-old retired teacher, who recounted in his diary “they separated me from my books, I kept silent/ Then they kept me away from my wife, I still kept silent/ They put me away from my home, I had to keep silent/ My daily medicines provided me the only company/ My ‘age’ was a ‘burden’ and I lived in silence.”
Banerjee goes on to note that the teacher in question “spent the last years of his life in an old-age home, far from his family and his self-built world. These incidents of suffering are, however, not uncommon in old age and as a practicing geriatric psychiatrist, I encounter such stories frequently. Be it at home, in the streets, or old-age care facilities and hospitals, the elderly face various forms of emotional, physical, psychological and social abuse. It might range from neglect to physical trauma, food refusal to financial deprival, a casual insult to separation from the spouse.”
Banerjee goes on to highlight that India’s population is ageing and, whilst reverence for our elders is often considered a staple of Indian culture, the reality is much murkier. “India is graying fast; a report by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation mentions that in 2016, the elderly (above sixty years of age) form 8.5 percent of our population,” he writes. “With the WHO estimating that the elderly population is increasing by 3.5 percent per year, by 2050, around twenty percent of our country will be seniors.
“What these numbers do not predict is the consistent struggle the elderly have to face daily in the community. Historically, Indians are perceived as familial beings with young-old coexistence. In reality, it is a myth, as the International Network for Prevention of Elder Abuse (INPEA) in its 2016 report mentions India as the leading Asian country in terms of elder exploitation and abuse.”
As Sharma notes, “elder abuse can take many forms, it could be physical abuse, emotional neglect, abuse for financial gains, social isolation and poor care. Avoiding communication with your elders because you can’t come to an agreement is also a form of silent abuse.”
Indeed, isolation is a situation many Indian seniors find themselves in and fuels a mental health crisis among this demographic Health Issues India has previously explored. In 2018, we noted how “it is estimated that by the year 2020, approximately seventy percent of the world’s population aged sixty and above will be living in developing countries. 14.2 percent of them will live in India. Recent polling has shed new light on one of the most difficult issues facing India’s seniors: loneliness and depression.
“Just one tenth of India’s seniors are not concerned about loneliness. 36 percent of those surveyed identified social interaction as their top priority in day-to-day life. This is per Juj Jug Jiyenge (“Live Longer”) – a survey of 1,000 elderly Indians across seven states conducted by IVH Senior Care, an elder care provider headquartered in Noida, Uttar Pradesh. The survey reveals that just two percent of Indian seniors consider themselves to have a good quality of life. 71 percent of surveyees say their lives could be improved. The data suggests that social isolation is a major driving force behind this epidemic of low mood and marginalisation of one of society’s most vulnerable demographics.”
2020 has come and gone, but the spectre of the pandemic lingers – especially when one considers the viciousness and virulence of the second wave. Last year, we noted “mental and emotional wellbeing is…a matter for concern [among seniors]. COVID-19, given the lockdown restrictions imposed, is virtually certain to have exacerbated this issue.”
We must clamp down on elder abuse and neglect. This requires a sustained effort to take care of not only our elders’ physical needs, but their emotional wellbeing too – and to not exploit them either directly or indirectly. A phone call can be of huge value to someone who has been bereft of human contact for so long and faces the anxieties of a time period where they are especially susceptible to serious illness due to a virus ravaging the nation. We are afforded one opportunity in this life to be compassionate to one another. To those who are of an advanced age, that compassion makes a real difference.