Is it a coincidence that October 1 was declared both the International Children’s Day as well as the International Older Persons’ Day? No one will ever know. What we do know is, as the newspapers reported, three elders abandoned by their progeny, sick and destitute were found by the general public from three different areas of the country. This number, probably, is the size of half a pea, compared to the unreported abandonment of elders, through our paradise isle. Obviously, elder is synonymous with ageing and I quote below a section off the World Health Organization’s Media Centre page, on something new i.e Ageism.
‘New analysis by WHO shows that negative or ageist attitudes towards older people are widespread. They also negatively affect older people’s physical and mental health.
Fully 60% of respondents in the "World Values Survey" analysed by WHO reported that older people are not respected. More than 83 000 people in 57 countries took part in the survey which assessed attitudes to older people across all age groups.* The lowest levels of respect were reported in high income countries.
"This analysis confirms that ageism is extremely common. Yet most people are completely unaware of the subconscious stereotypes they hold about older people," said John Beard, WHO Director of Ageing and Life Course. "Like sexism and racism, changing social norms is possible. It is time to stop defining people by their age. It will result in more prosperous, equitable and healthier societies."’
As a nation, Sri Lanka is said to have a higher category of an ageing population, as opposed to its younger generation. If WHO is right and I strongly believe it does its research well before publishing any article, in time to come, if age is discriminated it might be a scenario of a ‘pot calling kettle black’! Ageism – like, sexism, racism or any other negative-ism, needs to be weeded out from our society, if we are to flourish in the millennial era.
It may be correct to say that until the turn of the century, we Sri Lankans did not have an issue with elder care. There was no special segment called ‘elder care’ in our homes. Parents reared children, who grew into adults, married and took care of ageing parents. At least one sibling opted to live with parents, so that the ageing parents are not left to take care of themselves.
Enter the millennium, the scenario definitely has changed. Mass migration due to whatever reason, parental resistance in moving in the children who move away from home, or simple negligence on the part of the children, has created a vacuum that’s evolved in to a topic called ‘Elder care’. Yes, the children need to pursue their dreams and aspirations. Globalisation beckons to pastures different to those at home. I am truly reluctant to call any other pasture ‘green’ for I’ve heard tales of many for whom the pastures elsewhere rendered nothing but toil and hardship. This leaves a vacuum on elder care, that we as a nation, are not fully geared to handle in the community. In the centre of the problem is a devaluing of a person’s age and experience that is being weighed in the balance of the millennial skill and know-how, which the younger generation seem to take as non-existent.
We all can go on a barrage on morality on discovering a mother or father chained to the dog cage, abandoned on the pavement, left in the railway station or opted to live in the cemetery, just so their children can get on with their ‘normal’ lives. Let me present you with a two-pronged view:
Morality: In the bygone era, adult children’s ‘normal’ life, naturally included taking care of their ageing parents. It was unthinkable for all the children to get educated, get a job, get married and happily leave home, leaving their ageing parents to fend for themselves. The ‘normal’ included the parents. Whether one stayed behind or moved them with one of them, the parents weren’t a negotiable piece of property, to be used and discarded. This brings us to a question as to what ‘normal’ means these days, when it comes to taking care of ageing parents or a relative. In the same by gone era, unmarried aunts and uncles who would contribute much to bring up their nephews and nieces were also included in the ‘normal’ stream of life to be looked after in their elder days.
Grace is almost 97 years old. She never married but helped bring up her nephews and nieces. Now, dear Grace is being looked after by one of those nephews she brought up. Some sense of duty, isn’t it?
Jane, on the other hand, lost both her husband and son few years apart. The grandchildren to whom the property was written, ousted her and rented the house, she helped up keep most of her life. She now lives in a well-tended Elders’ home. So what’s the difference? Childhood, background and values?
Community Response: Morality is from the heart and soul. It can be taught but practising is up to the individual. In the absence of morality, the community needs to step in. It’s not a job that we can sit by and watch for the government to carry through. It is a joint effort by the government and each community. Lets’ face it. The issue will only grow in proportions to the ageing population that Sri Lanka is supposed to have, in the coming decades. If that is the case, the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of that population should be on par with whatever other priority areas that the nation is calling a priority. Acquiring property to house the homeless elders (another sad episode in our country’s present), is a long term goal. Where they should be established is up to the government and the community leaders to define.
As members of the general public, there are a few things we can implement. For starters:
- How about inculcating that old time ‘respect for elders’ into our children from a young age?
- The saying, ‘honour your father and your mother’ seem to have been tossed out the millennium back door into the dump heap. Well evidenced by what we see and read in the news. How about inculcating that truth in to our children from a young age?
- In the by gone era, we children were taught to give up our seat on a bus to an elder. Now, even a pregnant lady is seen standing hanging on to a pole in a bus driven fast and furiously to meet the day-end target.
- How about creating some focus groups where elderly can positively input with their age-long experience, knowledge and skill? Sri Lanka does have several informal groups for Senior Citizens. They are hardly known by the larger population of the general public. Such groups and their activities should be highlighted in the media (if possible, free of charge as a CSR), so that the general public can actively participate in whatever is planned for the elders. Cohesion created between the ‘elders’ and the rest of the society will be valuable. Society will understand that ‘elders’ are an integral part of the society itself.
What Sri Lanka lacks is the ‘doing’ of the ‘planned process’. Just the other day, I had to take an elder in the family to the Ayurvedic clinic at Rajagiriya. I was happy to see a board boldly declaring “Senior Citizens’ Clinic”. Alas, only the board was there. The door was tightly shut and there was no specific Ayurvedic doctor to take care of the senior citizen that I took for treatment. He had to sit with the rest of the patients with a badly hurting arthritic leg and do the musical chair round through six rows of chairs until his number was called.
We Sri Lankans, still have some old values left in us. It may be the reason that we feed the beggar that comes to our gate, among few other things we do. Let's take it beyond that to truly treat our elders as they should be. A valuable part of our social fabric.