Coping with old age is becoming increasingly difficult. Young people now see senior citizens as a burden. The respect they once enjoyed in the joint family is slowly disappearing. Many suffer mental and physical abuse. In urban areas, the problems get further accentuated. Community support is weak and the kin network is diffused over a large area and relatively ineffective. The entire responsibility of support and care of the ageing falls on the male children with whom the ageing live.
The composition of the family in urban areas is becoming nuclear and smaller, as a result of which there are fewer people available in the house to provide care and comfort to the ageing. Those who are available are torn apart by the stresses of urban living. Women too in the urban areas are now working outside the family. They have fixed schedules of work and have other pressures on them. Children are loaded with their studies, competitive examinations and concerns for making their careers.
The authority that the ageing exercised on their children in the past as a result of greater experience has almost vanished, and the aged are now told, 'You don't know'. There are several reasons for this admonishment.
First, the children of the ageing are not in the same profession. Second, the quantum of information which their children claim to have, makes the ageing look almost primitive. Third, the whole techno-economic situation has now completely changed, which leaves the ageing bewildered and redundant. When paucity of accommodation, high cost of living, general stress and tensions at all levels are added to these, the problems of the aged are extremely serious.
Senior citizens, since time immemorial, have enjoyed the love, affection and respect of their children and grandchildren. All their needs would be met by their families. But now things are beginning to change. Their longer lifespan as well as the demands of changing lifestyles, economic and social problems, have created challenges which every society must face.
The western world has vigorously addressed the problem of the elderly since a long time, according to their culture. This has largely resulted in establishing homes for the elderly, where the elderly are sent when they are unable to look after themselves. Every city and town in the West has such homes in the public and private sectors.
When we Muslims talk of services for the aged, the idea of starting homes for them springs to our minds and we tend to copy western methods without giving a thought to the excellent social safety net which our family system provides and which has now become the envy of the western world. Moreover, the religious injunctions in Islam which enjoin the care of elders as a religious duty on all family members strengthen the family safety net and reinforce it. That is why problems of the elderly have not received due attention in our society.
The challenge which our society now faces is to find ways and means of providing adequate care to the elderly on the cultural and traditional pattern of our family structures, without blindly following the West.
With the changes in our family patterns and lifestyles, especially the tendency of the young members to migrate to other countries, the elderly are facing severe problems. Children, who migrate abroad, settle down, get married and begin their own lives. There could be exceptions, but sadly among Muslims too, the parents of these children back home, lead lonely lives. They keep their hopes alive and wait eagerly for the once-in-a-blue moon email or phone call that they receive from the children.
The internet and now the Watsapp, Viber messages may have made communication easier these days. But many Muslims from the older generation are not comfortable with the internet and the mobile. They are dependent on their children to learn the usage. Many shy away from using it. It is very common to hear the elderly say, "No, I have no email address, my children operate it for me." "I am old, I don't use computers." It becomes the responsibility of the younger generation to teach the elderly, the use of computer or the mobile phone.
Studies have shown that we still do not abandon our old parents, but a long-term chronic sickness, such as dementia, paralysis, Alzheimers etc, creates enormous financial and emotional burden on the younger generation. The increasing economic dependency created by chronic illness of the elderly and the rising cost of living, prevents children from caring for their parents as well as they would like. The elderly, both men and women, face specific health and psychological problems which need special long-term care.
We are a society in transition. We have neither the facilities of the west nor the care and concern for the elderly that has traditionally been a part of our culture. Remember this Quranic verse when you next meet an old person, whom you might brush aside without looking at the young soul, within. We will one day be there, also!
"Thy Lord has decreed that you worship none save Him alone, and behave beneficently towards parents. If either or both of them should attain old age while you are alive, say not "Ouf" to them, nor chide them, and speak kindly to them. Lower to them the wing of humility out of tenderness and pray: 'Lord! Have mercy upon them, as they brought me up when I was little".