Only a few days ago, headlines on the front page of a national daily screamed: 'Family throws granny on garbage heap'. The accompanying photograph, from Erode in Tamil Nadu, was of the semi-paralyzed 75-year-old woman, left to die on a rubbish heap by her grandsons. The boys had acted under the instructions of their mother - the old lady's daughter - who had decided that she could no longer take care of her mother.
A 28-year-old youth in the Capital was recently arrested for allegedly shooting at his father after having lured him out of the house. His mother sustained injuries in the attack.
In September last year, a 37-year-old man beat his father, 58, to death for "disturbing" him during his siesta.
With an increasing number of cases of abuse and neglect towards senior citizens being reported across the country, Indians can no longer boast of being proponents of traditional family values. According to HelpAge India, a leading Delhi-based NGO that works for the elderly, four out of 10 elders are victims of abuse. Shockingly, a staggering 47.3 per cent of the perpetrators of such abuse are adult children. Often, even grandchildren are guilty. In fact, 8.6 per cent of all abusers are grandchildren. Even these disturbing statistics don't give the full picture because it is estimated that only one out of six cases of elder abuse are actually reported.
While there were 57 million senior citizens in 1991, the number is expected to reach 100 million during the next decade, according to data from the Department of Social Welfare, Delhi Government. Modern medicine and availability of better health care facilities in the country have ensured a significant increase in the life expectancy of citizens above 60 years of age.
Unfortunately, the gradual disintegration of the joint family system and the growing number of working couples has meant that the elderly are left to fend for themselves. Many are left struggling through the last years of their lives, alone and neglected.
Activists working for the betterment of the elderly feel it is time that senior citizens took matters into their own hands. "I think the elderly should stop depending on their children and society," asserts Dr Aabha Chaudhary, Founder Secretary, Anugraha, a Delhi-based NGO working for old people. "There has to be community sensitization and if the larger society is not willing to extend their cooperation, the elderly should learn to cooperate amongst themselves," suggests Dr Chaudhary.
At a programme in New Delhi to mark World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, earlier this year, Dr Chaudhary had said that India is growing old. "The number of old [people] in the country is currently 77 million, which is likely to grow to 177 million in another 25 years," she revealed.
Tejendra Khanna, Lieutenant-Governor of Delhi, agrees, "Senior citizens should make an effort to reach out to each other and not be dependent on their family. Besides, if their children are harassing them, they should not shy away from throwing them out."
Enforcement agencies feel elder abuse is an issue that needs to be tackled in a holistic manner and with the active involvement of the community. "Delhi Police has extended its full cooperation to senior citizens but in the end, the onus is on society to make the city a better place for their senior citizens," says Anil Shukla, DCP (South).
Any senior citizen can call Delhi Police at 1291 and register their complaints. Immediate action will be taken. But while the police can make the elderly feel more secure, it cannot change the attitude of the society, he rues.
Eight years ago, Sunita Mukherjee, 80, was thrown out of her home in Bihar by her son. Prior to that, Sunita was regularly ill-treated by her daughter-in-law. Then, when Sunita suffered a heart attack, her son refused to provide medical treatment and, instead, packed her off to his sister's house in Delhi. Sunita received no compassion from her daughter either, and was dispatched to a government-run old age home in south Delhi. "My daughter visits me occasionally but my son never even writes. My life is over, I am almost dead," cries Sunita. "The government cannot do anything in such a situation, it is the people concerned who must be sensible."
Devi Saxena, 80, has been living in an old-age home for the past two years. After her son's death in an accident 15 years back, she was a victim of severe emotional torture inflicted by her daughter-in-law. On reporting the matter to the police, Devi was told to sort things out within the family. Shunted off from one relative's house to another, Devi was eventually abandoned at the old age home. "The police did not help me. The younger generation does not have any respect for the elderly. They see us as useless things to be thrown out," she says. Devi hopes that more such shelters will be opened for vulnerable people like her.
One only hopes that the old-age homes are truly comforting last resorts. After all, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report, mistreatment of elder people often occurs within institutional settings -such as nursing homes, residential care institutions, hospitals and day-care centers. Evidence from India, it says, suggests that in some instances staff often perpetuate institutional abuse when they impose rules of over-protective care in the name of discipline.
Other forms of abuse that continue under the name of tradition are those related to the mourning rites of passage for widows - particularly those who are childless. By custom, these widows are either forced to marry their husband's brother or face expulsion from their homes.
On a brighter note, there may be respite for India's elderly in the shape of a new law that gives senior citizens right to maintenance from their children and also empowers them to cut them off from their will. The Older Persons (Maintenance, Care and Protection) Bill, likely to be introduced in the Monsoon Session of Parliament, was recently cleared by the Union Cabinet. The Bill provides for a tribunal that will hear senior citizens' complaints of neglect, physical injury, mental cruelty, and separation with families and restoration, against their children or a government agency. The tribunal has to dispose of the complaint within 90 days.
According to an official source, a major feature of the proposed law is the tribunal's power to declare it a case of fraud or coercion if any person fails to provide senior citizens' basic amenities after acquiring property from them as gift or on the condition that s/he will take care of them. The proposed law also provides for maintenance fee to senior citizens, who do not have children or grandchildren or whose offspring cannot pay them monthly maintenance charges.
With the growing prevalence of abuse of the elderly in Indian society, this government measure must seem a frail silver lining of the twilight years.