With rising number of elders all over the world including India, elder abuse needs to be taken seriously. Increasing incidence of elder abuse in India is a matter of great concern. Lawmakers and other stakeholders not only need to be aware but also raise their voice against this menace. Lots of voices are heard about abuses of children and women; there is much less debate on a subject like elder abuse that is equally menacing and leaves a permanent scar on society.
Among the seven (7) types of elder abuse defined by National Centre on Elder Abuse, the most prominent are three (3) namely, physical, financial, and emotional. And surprisingly, many such elder abuse cases do take place at homes where elders are expected to feel maximum secure and protected. Unfortunately, the perpetrators are close relatives including sons, daughters in law and even daughters in some cases. The annual survey conducted by HelpAge India depicts pitiable condition of many elder abuses at homes as well as old age homes.
Most unfortunate part of the story is that many such cases remain unreported as elders are not willing to speak out. Even if they want, the outlets are grossly inadequate and unsafe, and people around are not empathetic. There are no specific laws to protect elders from abuse. There is no specific Ministry as well at the central level for senior citizens. There are a few helplines created by different agencies like Senior Citizens National Helpline, Government of India Toll Free Number (14567) or HelpAge India National Helpline (18001801253) or Police Number (100) but our interactions reveal that either senior citizens are not aware of these numbers or do not report to them. All these numbers are grossly under-utilized from elder abuse point of view.
We talk more and do less for elders particularly with respect to protecting them from potential abusers. June 15th every year is observed as “World Elder Abuse Awareness Day”, but it remains more of an ornamental event. Lots of seminars / symposiums happen around the day and we forget it immediately after it is over. And thus, woeful plight of elders continues, and cases of abuse go on increasing.
After I started writing this column on senior citizens, I have been getting around one (1) communication a month seeking redressal from gross cases of elder abuse. These come from different and remote parts of country; these are often sent by some neighbors who have observed such cases. And in many such cases, police do not intervene effectively as no one files FIR. I am helpless in many such cases being so far and can do no more than giving some academic advice.
This shows extent and depth of the serious problem of elder abuse. There appears to be no immediate remedy.
What Can Be Remedy:
There are two (2) ways to counter any problem like elder abuse: “legal” and “social”. While legal remedies are punitive in nature and enforce aberrations through application of legal prudence / norms, social means are more moral in nature by way of enforcement through social pressure. Both are needed. Laws are needed to punish perpetrators. The current law (The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act 2007) takes care of cases related to abandonment of parents besides their maintenance. What is needed is a stricter special law against elder abuse and harsher punishment in terms of jail / fine. Then only such incidents can be minimized. Secondly, every police station must have a “nodal officer” to look after cases of elder abuse. It shall be duty of these officers to visit homes where senior citizens are staying at least once in 6 months to enquire their well-being.
More important however is to tackle such cases at social level. One of the fundamental issues is that there is insufficient acknowledgement of the problem at ground level. Elders do not speak about it because of fear or stigma. Majority of cases thereby go unreported. Therefore, the starting point is that we need to acknowledge existence of the problem. All responsible stakeholders need to recognize that the problem exists. Secondly, “Elder Respect and Elder Abuse” must be included in course curriculum at middle school level. This will help children to understand importance of elder care and will help creation of a sensitive new generation. Thirdly, we need to develop a pool of trained geriatric counsellors who can counsel not only the elders but also their family members / managers of old age homes to sensitize all to the issues related to elder care. We are sure that this “softer touch” will create a positive synergy between family members and elders and reduce the friction. Fourthly, senior citizen clubs / associations must keep a watch on its members. If any unusual behavior is observed on part of any member, clubs should try to investigate the matter and if need be, intervene through help from nodal police officer of local police station. And finally, it is elders themselves who must take care of their own destiny. They should not allow themselves to be exploited by anybody and be afraid of stigma. At the first instance of any type of abuse, they should come out openly and talk to someone they are comfortable with. This is the only way the problem can be tackled immediately at social level.
The menace of elder abuse is eating into very fabric of our societal values. It needs to stop at any cost. On this 15th June, let us take pledge that we will do all what we can to save the weak elders from abuse of any type. By doing so, we will be creating an ambience for elders enabling them to live a happy and dignified life which is the minimum they expect from the planet.
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