As I began drafting this post, the working title I gave it read “What if my kids abandon me when I’m old?” My daughter Kris happened to see the title. Genuinely hurt, she asked me if that’s what I thought of her, if I felt that she’d abandon her dad and me in our old age. Of course not, I said. I’m simply putting myself in your great-grandmother Mercy’s shoes.
That explanation was enough to clear the hurt from Kris’s face. She understood. I have never cocooned her in the illusion that the world is a fairytale place. There is an ever-increasing evil flourishing, and in our case, we’re battling it right in my maternal family. We cannot hope to conquer it through ignorance or indifference. The only way out is standing up to it, calling a spade a spade and teaching others to do so too.
My intention behind this blog was not only the hope of resolving my grandmother Mercy’s plight, but to join the growing number of voices protesting against elder abuse. The first step to solving a problem is accepting that there is one. To that end, the UN has marked June 15th as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. It coincides, in an odd twist of fate, with Mercy’s birthday.
Elder abuse is a steadily rising, universal problem affecting old people in various forms. In Mercy’s case, she was physically attacked by DIL 1, which was why she couldn’t stay in Son 1’s home. But during her last stay at Daughter 2’s home, and then in Son 2’s home where she spent a few years, the abuse was emotional, which is perhaps the most difficult type to detect and address. She was deliberately isolated from family, and subjected to behaviour designed to hurt, to strip away her dignity and make her feel unwanted and unloved.
Today, ill health has rendered her a virtual prisoner in her old flat in Mumbai, with only a housekeeper to look after her. Her old-fashioned mindset won’t allow her to live with her eldest daughter, my mother. And so, living alone is preferable to living with her only surviving son and enduring his wife’s abusive behaviour.
Like most victims, Mercy confides freely only to a few, in this case, my parents, sister and myself. Son 1 is no more, Daughter 2 appears to have severed all ties with her, and Son 2 won’t hear anything against his wife. Unless the victim speaks up, there is no proof of wrongdoing and the matter ultimately boils down to ‘our word against theirs’. No authority will intervene in such a situation.
So how do we break this impasse? The solution lies in education. In teaching people what abusive behaviour consists of, the damage it causes and that it is not acceptable for civilised individuals and societies to treat the vulnerable in this way. As I see it, it begins with the basic practice of empathy.
Ask yourself these questions:
- How would I feel, or what would I do, if my kids abandoned me in my old age?
- How would I feel if those who should be the closest to me, were to turn against me?
- How would I feel if I didn’t have the freedom to speak my mind? To voice my concerns, my fears?
Son 2 and Daughter 2 are parents themselves and I often wonder, don’t they ever stop to think just for a second, what they’d feel if they were in Mercy’s place? They believe they’re devoted parents. So was she. They believe they’ll have their kids’ love and support all their lives. So did she. And yet, here we are.
I know I would be gutted, if it ever happened to me. I can’t begin to imagine the heartache she is living with every day. It is not a future I want for myself or for anyone else. I don’t think even the toughest soul could live in such a scenario and remain unaffected. From this, shouldn’t it then logically follow that if you wouldn’t like to be in that position – old and unwanted, as though you’ve outlived your usefulness – you shouldn’t place someone else in it either?
Assuming nothing kills you off before, old age is inevitable for all, regardless of what other factors differentiate us. You can stave it off externally if you have the resources to do so, but the inescapable fact is that one day, you won’t be as strong, steady or capable as you may be today. A dignified old age is not a guarantee. To ensure one, you’ve got to stand up against elder abuse. And that makes combating it everybody’s business.