Our society is going through a major upheaval with many structural transformations happening simultaneously. We are increasingly becoming a market-based economy; women are finding their voices; urbanisation is happening at breakneck speed; traditional social structures are breaking down. This can lead to problems to which there are no easy solutions. One of these issues pertains to the welfare of the elderly. An exploding elderly population, higher life expectancy rates, the break-down of the joint family structure, and the changing dynamics between parents and young adults has created a conundrum of sorts.
I must begin by stating that I am extremely grateful to my parents for all the effort that they have put into raising me as a child, and I’m acutely aware of all the personal sacrifices that it entailed on their part on a regular basis. Having said that, as a young adult, I often find myself having independent opinions on issues that may not pass muster with my parents. For example, should I abandon my hectic corporate career for a less paying but more comfortable job? The actual scope of my right to religious freedom—to be agnostic, atheist, pagan, heathen, animist, totemist, and anything in between; my political opinions about what kind of life religious minorities should be entitled to in a secular country like India; whether the aforementioned should have any link at all to how our neighboring countries treat their minorities. All of these become conflicts.
As our parents stray into their 60s, simple situations can often get out of hand. A harmless suggestion to my father who is a cardiac patient to opt for a wheelchair at a humongous airport met with a hostile reaction from him as he deeply resented being reminded of his limited mobility options.
The first time that my mother could not recollect where she had left her spectacles, I could sense a deep alarm descend in her eyes, as she has always prided herself on her memory and her ability to keep things super organised. With the gradual realisation of their fraying health, seclusion induced due to retirement, and even technological/digital exclusion, our parents are becoming more vulnerable. which calls for sensitive handling by us young adults.
The development model of our economy is highly centralised, with most of our tertiary sector opportunities located in metro cities. The idea of creating multiple growth poles in our economy has failed to take off. Economic disparity between states is only increasing which has led to development-induced migration to acquire new personal economic heights. Like most young people from second tier cities and small towns, I have had to leave home right after my class 12th because of the limited career and higher education opportunities back home. While I am very proud of the place that I come from (Cuttack), thoughts of pursuing a career there are practically not feasible.
What this translates into is popularly known as empty nest syndrome where young adults heading for distant shores leaves parents, lonely, vulnerable, pining for company and assistance. Parents may often refuse to migrate to cities along with their children because of emotional ties with their native places, work constraints, inability to cope up with the fast pace of life, or language barriers, which compounds the problem. With the increasing breakdown in our law and order situations, the elderly are becoming increasingly prone to murder, robbery, theft, and house break-ins.
If you are the son, and, let’s say, your wife and your parents are not really buddies, my best wishes are with you, as keeping both sides happy will be a monumental task. Add to this long working hours, institutionalised exploitation of the private sector, and raising a child with a mind of its own, you may find yourself praying to God to split you into multiple independent entities to cope with the pressures that life is throwing you. Don’t let either party bully you into choosing a winner. Stand firm!
If you are a daughter-in-law, you may find yourself in a difficult position where your ageing in-laws may not have been entirely supportive of your career, or respectful of your personal choices, but you feel guilty about neglecting them. You may also find yourself in a situation where a chunk of the care work comes to rest entirely on your shoulders (as has traditionally been the case), driving you to exhaustion. It is only human to feel a little acrimonious in such situations.
I have found pop culture’s treatment of the changing dynamics of parent-young adult relationship quite shallow and disappointing. They are preachy, don’t address underlying issues, and portray young adults as ungrateful with mostly the daughter-in-law being portrayed in the poorest of poor light. I have also noticed that references to the movie “Baghbaan” are mostly resorted to by parents to win an argument at any cost and to emotionally ambush you into doing innocuous stuff. This has also been corroborated by my interaction with many of my friends.
I am aware of the fact that there are instances of senior citizens being abused, subjected to violence and abandoned by their children. This is a serious issue and cannot be condoned at any cost. However, I like to believe that most of us out here are decent human beings who are highly indebted to our parents for all that they have done for us, and would like to take good care of them. In case you are not one of those people, I would like to draw your attention to the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007, which casts a legal compulsion on children to maintain their parents and provides for constitution of tribunals in states for adjudication of claims. (However, the Act has remained a paper tiger because of lack of awareness amongst senior citizens, non-constitution of tribunals, and reluctance on the part of senior citizens to report in order to maintain family honour). Legal liability under Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code 1973 and Section 20 of the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956 to maintain an aged parent may also ensue.
Article 41 of the Constitution (Directive Principles of State Policy) mandates that the State shall, within the limits of its economic capacity and development, make effective provision for securing the right of public assistance in cases of old age. The National Policy on Older Persons 1999 lays down several policy level interventions on the part of the state such as the creation of old age homes, setting up of helplines for senior citizens, community policing of senior citizens, greater budget allocation for financial security of the elderly, making available opportunities for development of the potential of older person, support to voluntary organisations, setting up of geriatric wards in public hospitals, greater focus on research related to geriatric issues, and more. However most of these directives have failed to see the light of the day. National Council of Senior Citizens established under the 1999 Policy framework to advise the Central and State government on issues related to elderly has failed to make a mark.
Market-based solutions to the issue are still at a very nascent stage. Assisted-living facilities are mostly unaffordable at the moment, and hard to come by. The market for quality home-based healthcare facilities and geriatric services (preventive, palliative, rehabilitative) is slowly expanding. In Tier-II cities and small towns, the facilities are few and far between. While several NGOs like Help Age India and Dignity Foundation are doing credible work, there is still a lot of stigma attached with old age homes and care facilities outside the home. This means that bulk of the responsibility has to be shared by family members (particularly young adults) without adequate support from the State, market, or NGOs. Here’s how to navigate the choppy waters.
1: Pick Your Fights
Don’t sweat the small stuff. If your parents think that India is veritably ‘Vishwagru’, and acquired nuclear power status during the Mahabharata days (and not during Pokhran Nuclear tests), so be it. But you will have to stand for yourself on important issues such as career, life goals, partner choices etc. Be patient and keep the debate calm.
2: Health Insurance
Getting your parents some form of health insurance is an absolute must. If you have corporate health insurance, try getting your parents as beneficiaries.
3: Financial Security
Getting involved with your parents’ financial security is important. You could consider setting aside a part of your income on a regular basis for their financial security in case they are unable to do so. There are several pension plans out in the market today. Recently the Government has launched the Rashtriya Vaya Vandana Yojana which is a decent option.
4: Care Work
I strongly believe that taking care of your parents is as much the responsibility of daughters and son-in-laws as it is of sons and daughter-in-laws. When it comes to the grind, everyone pitching in will significantly reduce the burden on any one person. Having a good understanding amongst all family members is crucial.
5: Helpful Neighbours And Relatives
In case you are not living with your parents under the same roof, neighbours and relatives are probably the first responders in case of an emergency. Do cultivate contacts with them and keep a good rapport.
6: Technology Is Your Best Bet
Parents may find it difficult to cope with technology, initially, but if you are patient and break down stuff with a lot of clarity, the dividends are high. Some of our significant achievements in this regard are (my brother and sister-in-law included) getting our parents used to online banking, e-commerce facilities, Uber, Whatsapp, Facebook, and Skype. My brother recently ordered bluetooth speakers for my mom and consequently we have to live with my mom playing “Proper Patola” on loop at high decibels! Adding your parents to your friendlist on Facebook is entirely optional.
7: Vehicle Options
Opting for automatic gear cars and small vehicles definitely will increase mobility options for your parents.
Innovative housing options such as renting apartments close by (certainly more expensive) provide for a joint-family-like structure which ensures both independence and privacy for young couples and caters to the needs of parents. In case your parents are incapable of taking care of themselves and have to move in with you, you will have to talk to your children and spouse about it. Talking to them and making necessary changes can help them mentally prepare for the new circumstances. Rohinton Mistry’s novel “Family Matters” captures the chaos associated with such situations beautifully.
9: Vacations And Bonding
Taking vacations with parents at regular intervals can help keep the flock together. We recently did a family trip to Thailand and while at times it did feel like a pilgrimage, family time together in the hotel swimming pool was quality entertainment. Setting up simple rituals such as visiting parents on festivals, celebrating special occasions together, and gifting can go a long way in making your parents feel cared for.
10: Additional Engagement
Encouraging your parents to seek employment opportunities post-retirement, taking up new hobbies (gardening, pottery, curating recipes, storytelling), or getting involved in community activities can help them stay productive and engaged.
It is all about loving our parents. At times, situations will be too demanding and you will find yourself struggling to cope. But I just hope that our generation rises to the occasion with ease.