Prema's name translates as 'loved one'. But in Prema's case, her name is a misnomer. Far from being loved, at her advanced age she finds herself working endlessly for the young woman her husband brought into their home as his new 'wife'.
Prema, a homemaker who lives near Chandigarh, is in her late-60s. She was around 53 when her husband got inclined towards another younger women. At first, her husband was indifferent towards her and but this has turned to total neglect now.
Her situation is unusual, but it does fall in the category of 'elder abuse', a situation in which older people are subjected to abuse and neglect within their families and communities. On June 15, the world observes Elder Abuse Awareness Day, yet people like Prema continue to suffer neglect and abuse.
It was in the mid-1980s that gerontological research, especially in the UK and US, began to focus on elder abuse. But more than three decades later, it remains an unaddressed concern in India, characterized by a lack of conceptual and definitional clarity. Since this crime is greatly under-reported, there is also a conspicuous absence of relevant data on it. The situation is compounded by the fact that not all situations of elder abuse fit neatly into the existing legal categories. Consequently, elder abuse as a social issue or as one that is relevant to public health figures very inadequately in the public sphere. This has resulted in the underlying causes of abuse - which could in turn have helped in developing appropriate interventions to address it - remaining unidentified.
Yet, there is empirical evidence to suggest that in India incidents of abuse and neglect of older people are increasing by the day, both within families and institutions, and that it prevails across classes, castes and religions. Reports of such abuse have come in from every state in the country and it takes place in both rural and urban settings.
What is a particularly disquieting trend is the vulnerability of ageing women to oppression in various forms. Given existing structures of gender discrimination, women run a greater risk than men of becoming victims of material exploitation, financial deprivation, property grabbing, abandonment, verbal humiliation, emotional and psychological torment. When they fall seriously ill, it is more likely than not, that it is the elderly women in the family who will be denied proper health care. There is also a greater tendency to dismiss the gendered aspects of elder abuse. They rarely come to light. This is because such attacks are made invisible by the belief that they are 'internal' or 'domestic' matters that need to be sorted out by the concerned individuals and not one that can be addressed publicly. There is also a widespread understanding that the neglect, deprivation and marginalization of older women are the normal consequences of ageing.
The plight of young widows has been well-documented and commented upon in the country, but what has been overlooked are the traumas they undergo as a result of ageing. Already marginalized, the hardships they undergo due to age are never adequately realized and their need for more resources to meet their deteriorating health is invariably overlooked. It is unfortunate that even organizations involved in women's activism have paid insufficient attention to this helpless and hapless section of the population. In fact, women's organizations have so far tended to focus more on the dilemmas of middle-aged women who have to balance their own personal and career needs with the demands of looking after both the young and older generations within their families.
The research that I have personally conducted as a gerontologist has been revealing. I have come across women who have been hit, or more specifically slapped, by their sons, daughters-in-law, daughters and husbands. Some older women have told me that they have had things thrown at them when they have not done something according to the desires of family members. They have been pushed around or restrained from doing something they had wanted to do, whether it is cooking, housekeeping, or participating in activities outside the home. Many have reported being spat upon while some have been falsely framed for dowry harassment. But the most common abuse these women face is being denied independent social and economic resources. Most of them carry on doing the back breaking domestic chores that they have done all their lives. The luxury of a little leisure, a little care, is something that has always eluded them.
While it is difficult to accurately measure the extent of the problem on a national scale, given the fact that most families deny that such abuse takes place within the four walls of their homes, we do know that the number of older people in our midst is growing. Current estimates put the 60-plus population at around 90 million and India is projected to have a population of 142 million older people by 2020. Given this demographic reality, what kind of action can the country take at the individual and societal level to alleviate abuse and neglect? How can we generate thought and action from the health, welfare and criminal justice perspectives, which could contribute to a life free of violence, mistreatment and neglect for our elderly? How can we ensure greater acknowledgement and awareness of the need for older men and women to live a life of dignity and respect?
Some argue that a good legal regime will help victims of abuse and neglect among the elderly. India, like many other countries in the world, has adult protection provisions similar to those in Europe, the UK, Canada, South Africa and USA. But will an act like The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007 prove a deterrent to abuse? The problem here is that senior citizens, especially women, do not actively seek justice on issues like these. There is a need to raise public awareness on the issue and set up fast-track systems that will enable older persons to access justice more easily.
For me, an important intervention strategy is for everyone, particularly women, to start preparing for old age even when they are relatively young. It is essentially that each individual understands the legal, social and financial factors that shape their lives throughout their life span, and build the necessary support networks. This will go a long way in helping them take the necessary practical steps to secure their future and protect their rights, even as they advance in years.