Senior Citizens: Social Connectedness with Family and Not Place of Stay is Needed for Happiness

Dr A K Sen GuptaUpdated: Tuesday, May 31, 2022, 01:52 PM IST
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India always boasts of a rich tradition of a well-knit family that is well connected both socially as well as emotionally. Breakdown of extended family is often considered threat to existence of family equilibrium and cause of many social ills. In traditional thought process, this is a primary concern to elderly as absence of family support makes them more vulnerable and aloof from mainstream of life.

Theory goes like this. The traditional extended family offers a formal authority to elderly being supreme commander of family affairs. They guide affairs of family exercising power of head of such unit. This continues till the time they are physically fit and mentally agile. Once they become sick and are incapacitated, family members take care of them. Thus, elders and other members of a family lead a mutually useful, and interdependent life.

Are they always happy in this system? It is difficult to generalize. There are stories on either side of the table. In some cases, families live a happy and peaceful life with mutual respect while in many others this arrangement often causes friction among members. Generation gap becomes one of the key causes of conflict.

With rapid urbanization, availability of lesser space to live and understanding of a scenario of possible conflict if all generations stay together, the concept of extended family has slowly started withering away with unitary family becoming norm of the day. Elders feel relatively more comfortable with separate places of stay and leading an independent life. Does it make the situation better? Answer is again both in positive as well as negative. While in some cases elders lead their lives happily being independent, there are others where we see distance between elders and others further increasing because of lack of communication among them. This has a serios impact on well-being of elders.

Ideal Family Set Up:

The question has often been asked what the ideal family structure should be, or which is the better of the two: unitary or extended. Traditional proponents have always favored the extended family concept because of reasons mentioned earlier. This concept manifests in a happy unified family. But as mentioned earlier, it may not always be very cozy life; we often hear incidents of skirmishes, difference of opinions between generations. Elder abuse cases by sons, daughters in laws and in few cases by daughters are prevalent in quite a few cases of living together. Latest HelpAge India research reveals more than 62 per cent elders having suffered elder abuses by family members. At the same time, while independence of life is the main positive attribute of independent living, it may not always be ideal particularly for those elders who are physically weak or suffering from some age-related ailments. The comfort of staying with young people has a soothing effect on elderly.

In ultimate analysis, there is no single ideal solution. For some people, extended family is ideal; for others, possibly living separately serves the purpose better. Independent minded elders would like to stay alone. We also see a new trend in urban India of parents staying close to places of their children. It serves both the purposes, staying alone and at the same time in constant touch with children. For parents whose children are abroad, they are forced to stay alone in India unless they chose the tedious process of getting the immigration status (like Green Card or citizenship). We also see new trend of many seniors preferring to stay in old age homes. Emergence of various types / clusters of old age homes coming up in different parts of the country are providing different solutions to the issue of staying at old age. People who do not have children have anyway to mentally be ready to stay alone.

Way Forward:

Since there is no ideal or single solution to the issue of place of stay of an elderly, the individual elder must take a calculated decision whether to stay independently or with children. However, the examples cited above show that place of stay has no significant correlation with happiness. Elders staying with children have been happy in some cases while in others there has been significant strain between generations. The myth that distance between parents and children is not psychologically good for elders has also been proved wrong. We have seen instances how such families are epitome of happiness when the children or parents spend time together during vacation for a period of 1 to 2 months. There are case where all medical / psychological / emotional needs of parents being taken care of by children staying a distance. Weekly one hour meeting time over video calls has often been time when people from all generations spend time and enjoy. There are cases of children booking uber car services from USA for their parents in India and talking to doctors in India while taking care of medical needs of the elderly. Both parents and children are happy.

The overall theme is that place of stay of elders is not the crucial parameter of happiness. How the family is networked and children take care of social, mental and psychological needs of seniors is key to relationship. Wherever children and elders are socially and mentally connected, happiness automatically flow in. We therefore need to create an ecosystem where generations of family remain connected either physically or through remote means. This connection should be selfless and without motive. Physical association though important is not the only driver for enabling relationship. Happiness is more of a mental attitude, and it does not depend on physical barriers.

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