Elder Abuse: Our shocking secret

Filmmaker Priya Krishnaswamy’s Tamil feature film, Baaram (The Burden) is centred around elder abuse where an ageing watchman Karuppasamy meets with an accident, breaks his hip, and dies two weeks later. At his funeral, an older woman cries foul and calls his death a murder.

Krishnaswamy weaves a poignant tale, and in the process brings the little-known practice of Thalaikoothal to the foreground of our social discourse. “In Thalaikoothal, the elderly infirm people are starved for 10-15 days to weaken them; then they are given an excess of tender coconut water to create renal failure, followed by a cold-water head bath (Thalaikoothal means head bath). Within 2-3 days, the person is dead.

I was intrigued, but, frankly, I couldn’t believe that this was happening on such a large scale, and nobody knew about it,” says the filmmaker. She even went to the tiny industrial town in Tamil Nadu where the first case of Thalaikoothal was reported in 2010 and met the families involved.

“I spent a week there and met and recorded various individuals who told me their parts in the incident. It was a complex story of such horrifying brutality and systemic failure that I had no choice but to make the film - so as at least to honour the dead,” she recounts.

What is elder abuse?

In India, old age was never a problem. Elder abuse was considered as a ‘western’ problem and old age home was an alien concept. Earlier, the elderly persons of a family were respected a lot and they continued to live with respect till their death. But times have changed.

The elders are treated as a burden, often neglected and ignored and the story is different if you suffer from some form of dementia/ disability or you are a caregiver for your parents/elders or you are in the sandwich generation.

Giving a rundown, Sailesh Mishra, founder president of Silver Innings Group, social media coordinator of International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (INPEA), and founder of A1 Snehanjali, assisted living elder care home, says, “Elder abuse is the infliction of physical, emotional or psychological harm on an elderly.

Elder abuse also can take the form of financial exploitation or intentional or unintentional neglect of an elderly by the caregivers or third party.”

World over, June 15 is celebrated as the Elder Abuse Awareness Day. Talking about it, Mishra says, “It was officially recognized by the United Nations General Assembly in its resolution 66/127, December 2011, following a request by INPEA, who first established the commemoration in June 2006.

June 15 represents one day in the year when the whole world voices its opposition to the abuse and suffering inflicted to some of our older generations.”

A social problem

Mishra rues how elder abuse as a social problem remains hidden and a least researched topic with very little intervention. “According to a rough estimate, nearly 40% of older people living with their families are reportedly facing abuse of one kind or another.

Only 1 in 6 cases comes to light. Most elders are ill-treated by their children, who have emerged as the largest group of perpetrators at 47.3%. Neglect is the most common form of abuse at 48.7% followed by emotional/ psychological, financial exploitation, physical abuse and abandonment, respectively.

It is sad that a country which boasts about culture and tradition, also reports a growing incidence of insecurity, injustice and abuse of elders in India,” adds Mishra.

According to pan-Indian surveys, 40% of the elderly are subjected to some form of abuse and society considers it as a “family matter”, there are very few interventions by the government and society.

IM Khanna, founder of New Delhi based NGO working towards the welfare of senior citizens, Age Well Association, couldn’t agree more. “Elder abuse has been increasing rapidly not just in India but globally.

Statistics show that the number of older people is going to increase between 2019 to 2025, and subsequently, abuse of older persons will also increase,” says Khanna. He blames the rise in cases of elder abuse on the faulty upbringing of children.

“Parents are accepting all the demands of their children to buy peace in the house. As a result, children take them for granted. Older people, out of love, shell out everything they have and are finally left empty-handed, wholly dependent on their children,” he adds.

Abuse creates a potentially dangerous situation and feelings of worthlessness and it isolates the elderly from people who can help.

“Many of us don’t consider elder abuse as a health issue and so we don’t try to intervene as we consider this more as a social problem and not a health care problem, but remember it affects body, feelings, thoughts, and behaviours to varying degrees in seniors,” Mishra warns.

Course correction

Money seems to be the root cause of the problem in most cases. To reduce the problem of elder abuse, Khanna says that the elder must keep the amount earned by him in a bank and should not part with it and when needed, elders must say 'no' to their children instead of accepting all their demands.

The major problem dealing with elder abuse is there is a lack of dedicated legal intervention. “The most important law that somewhat deals with elder abuse is Maintenance of Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Bill, Dec 2007.

It is a revolutionary law. The tribunal headed by the SDM will decide the case. No advocate, 90 days’ timeline, the third party can file a suit. It has not been implemented all over India yet,” says Mishra.

To address elder abuse, he opines that there needs to be a multi-dimensional approach with involvement of all stakeholders including senior citizens, NGOs, senior citizens associations, children, youth, legal and police professionals, educational institutes, judiciary, and government and politicians.

He suggests mass awareness campaign, formation of Senior Citizens Committee in every locality, Multi-Service Gero-Care Centers, National Nodal Agency for Elder Abuse, Grievances cells, appointment of Elder Welfare Officer in each police station, increase social security pension, 4 digit Elder Helpline like Child Line, National Alliance of Senior Citizens and Ministry of Senior Citizens, among many other steps.

Meanwhile, the filmmaker is glad to have opened this dialogue around elder abuse with Baaram. “India is on the verge of an ageing population explosion most of whom are economically fragile, and there are many tragedies waiting to happen.

However, since the elderly are seldom seen as vote banks, there is little publicity given to their abuse. We need to address the issue of elder abuse now,” says Krishnaswamy, who is working towards a theatrical release for the film.

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