How many ‘elders’ – people mostly above sixty years – can claim that they live happily in their old age? What percentage of people are economically self-sufficient and do not have to be dependent on their sons, daughters or other relatives? Presumably the question is irrelevant in the case of the rich. Equally presumably, one suspect the question does not arise among the desperately poor. In recent times concern has been expressed over the situation in which the aged among the Great Middle Class are finding themselves, and this should be a matter of deep study. That it isn’t, largely because the aged find it embarrassing to reveal the truth about themselves and their families. They would rather prefer to suffer silently than expose the kind of abuse by their own children, daughters-in-law and even grand children they have to face on almost a daily basis.
Of course, there is a law which the elders can take recourse to, if they have the mental strength to fight their case. There is, for example, the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007 which places a legal obligation on relatives to enable the elderly to live a normal and dignified life. But one understands that percent-wise the number of aged who complain is minuscule.
The trouble is two-fold: One, with improvement of life expectancy, the number of seniors in India is expected to reach an astounding 177 million in the next quarter century and to 324 million by 2050. Women, normally known to live longer than men, constitute a majority of this number and are known to have to bear calumny in many ways.
According to a report on ‘Elder Abuse in India 2013’ released by Helpage India, four fifths of elderly people (85 per cent) live with their family and at national level, the daughter-in-law has been reported as a primary perpetrator of abuse (39 per cent) followed closely by their own son (38 per cent) The elders who obviously do not contribute to the family cost of living are considered ‘old furniture’ and a living burden on the young go-getters. The Helpage Report indicated that a shocking 16.19 per cent of those old-agers surveyed in Bikaner and 13.67 per cent in Hyderabad and Visakhapatnam admitted that they have been slapped and beaten ‘mercilessly’.
Overall, 70 per cent of elders who have faced physical abuse never talked about it. In Srinagar and Bikaner the figure was cent per cent. Many reasons are stated to be the cause of parental abuse. One, they don’t realise that they are now receivers of help and no longer contributors to living cost; two, they want their wishes to be met whereas the young want to live their own lives their own way, like holding parties, etc. Three, the elderly take a good deal of living space in a small apartment, allowing little privacy to the young couple. Against this background the most prevalent forms of abuse are: disrespect (75 per cent), neglect (66 per cent) and verbal abuse (81 per cent). The point has been made that in the Tier-l cities of New Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Kolkota, daughters-in-law form the main perpetrators of abuse. In Tier-II cities like Madurai and Mangalore, the top culprits are the sons. As many as 39 per cent of 320 elders interviewed in Mangalore admitted to facing abuse daily. According to figures released by the National Crime Research Bureau (NCRB) a year ago, out of a total number of 1,35,585 suicides reported in 2011 that of house-wives was 24,596 or 51.5 per cent of female victims. Out of these, 43.6 per cent were in the age group 15 to 29. Most women were home-makers. According to publisher Ritu Menon, “while that’s an important factor for suicides, it leads to a variety of stresses which can cause women to take their lives.”
According to a report of an institute of Mental Health, it is Madhya Pradesh that has logged the highest figure of home-makers suicides at 29.3 per cent. It would seem that women these days are increasingly refusing marriage as an option. They prefer to remain single. The point made by the educated woman – and this can hardly be challenged – is that for her to spend her time at home doing household duties like cooking and cleaning makes no sense considering that she – or her parents – have spent anything between Rs 2.5 to Rs 5 lakh on her education. Apart from anything else, she wants to retain her distinct identity and she would not mind being first of all, a working woman, earning her own livelihood independently of her husband, even if it meant being burdened by work both at home and at office. Marriage is accepted only if the prospective husband is willing to let his wife work.
Statistics are not available, but increasingly the husband apparently is often more than willing to let his wife work, considering that as a couple they have two incomes to live on. According to a media report published in The New Indian Express (July 22), most women in Bengaluru are choosing to stay single, some of them not married and do not want to and others having married have chosen to seek separation from their husbands to lead single lives. A Bengaluru lawyers has been quoted as saying that in 1991 as many as 781 cases of divorce had been registered and the number has increased by three times to 4,728 in 2012. In just six months this year as many as 1,500 divorces had taken place. The reasons for divorce mentioned are: desire for freedom, unwillingness to take care of elders in a husband’s family, especially difficulties in adjusting to in-laws. Unhappiness in sex life is also mentioned among the reasons. It is claimed that ‘live-ins’ is also becoming fairly common, but no statistical data is at present available.