“The hallmark of a civilized society is gauged by the standard of care it provides to its sick, its disabled and its elderly.”
It is widely believed that the place of the elderly is in the HOME. But, which home? To what purpose? Qui so role?*1 This article sets out to explore some of the core issues involved.
We will examine the relationship between the elderly and their children and the conflicts that may, and often do, arise between them. We will also examine the role of the State in helping old people lead a normal, dignified, independent life.
One of the first things that struck me upon my arrival in the UK as a teenager was, unlike Mauritians, youngsters left home once they reached the age of maturity, which was 21 at the time. For those going to university, this was earlier at age 18. Indeed, young people were encouraged to leave home by their parents, once they were in full employ or went to University — to become independent and make their own way in life.
In our oriental culture, on the other hand, we tend to keep our children, particularly boys, as long as possible with us. In many cases, it is not unusual for sons to continue living with their parents long after they get married and found a family of their own. More than emotional ties, this usually results from economic necessity. For the son, it means a mortgage-free house and for the parents, financial subsidy, if not outright support in guise of a payback for the free housing.
Except for the very few that are rich and have adequate means, boys are seen as an insurance policy for our old age. Hence, our obsession with having a male heir, the premier lot as we proudly call him. In the absence of a decent old age pension and sparse social services, we have to rely on them for much of our needs. So, like it or not, we legate our home to him to get in his (and crucially in the daughter-in-law’s!) good books, and hope they will look after us in return till our dying days.
Unfortunately, many of us will end up being disillusioned. At the extreme end, we have Old Age Pensioners being literally kicked out of the home that was once theirs, to spend their twilight years in charitable shelters. Most will end up as child minders, cleaners, and housekeepers in general and reduced to leading a feudal, servile life in the family. Some will even be persecuted and others physically abused, but will keep quiet about these out of feelings of shame. “Qui dimoune pou dire?”*2 they think. Many others will simply die due to neglect when geriatric problems, including Alzheimer disease, befall them.
In public, the son will beat his chest and brag that he is “looking” after his parents and, unaware of the realities behind the closed doors, people will applaud him. “Ene bon garcon sa, li occupe so maman-papa,”*3 they will say approvingly.
So, what to do? First, it is an undeniable fact that, no matter what our age, we all wish to reside in our own homes. I well remember an old widow in the UK who had a long battle with the Highway Authority. In order to build a dual carriageway, a small hamlet had to be razed to the ground and the residents relocated. Whilst all the other residents agreed, presumably because the offer was to their advantage, this stubborn old lady refused to budge. The road building went ahead and, eventually, her house ended up in the middle of a roundabout.
Even with the noise and pollution from the exhaust of passing vehicles, the old dear stuck to her principles. To her, her house was not just a structure made of bricks and mortar. This was the home and hearth she had shared with her late husband. It was the place where she had borne her children who grew up there. It was the place she had shared her joys, her sorrows, her laughter and her tears with those dearest to her. It contained within its walls the memories of a lifetime. Away from it, she would doubtless perish and die. So it is with all of us.
We also want to be independent. This independence is compromised by living with children. We are forced to change the habits and routines of a lifetime. Whether it is getting up, having a meal or simply taking a shower, it has to be done at their rhythm.
For instance, it is well known that we older people rise up early, even during week-ends when, after a hard week’s work, the children may wish to have a late lie in. At other times, our aches and pains may simply keep us awake. So, we get out of bed, make a cup of tea and watch television to pass the time.
In doing just these normal, simple, mundane things that we are used to doing, we will cause some disturbance to the children who need to rest at night, whilst we can catch up on our sleep next day. At other times, it is our recuperative siesta that will be disturbed by the children. Thus, the seeds of conflict are always waiting to sprout; it does not need a declaration of war for a conflictual relationship to develop between parents and children.
The extended family living under the same roof is a very eastern phenomenon, born out of necessity rather than having anything to do with family harmony. In the absence of a Welfare State proper, parents have to rely on their off-springs for their needs in old age and are obliged to depend on them for most things.
Having led an independent life until old age, we may find that there is little dignity in having to wait for someone else, albeit our own children, to give us our food and pay for our medical care. Besides, they will have their own responsibilities toward their family. Quite often, parents can become a source of conflict between spouses, if one of them feels their needs are being neglected in favour of the parents.
The best solution, therefore, is to let the elderly continue living in their own home, particularly if they can cope. Children can try to find somewhere close by to live and visit daily if necessary. They may even help financially, if not physically, and pay for a housemaid or carer when required. The last thing the elderly want is to be deprived of their independence.
The State’s Responsibility
The State also has a responsibility to ensure that the elderly spend their twilight years in comfort and live their lives in dignity.
Furthermore, we must ensure that they do not suffer any form of abuse, which happens often due to their vulnerability, especially in the later years when they are prone to losing some of their faculties.
Comparison. We have fallen into this awful habit of comparing ourselves with what is possibly the worst Continent on Earth. Even a CPE-level child knows that progress is not achieved by contenting ourselves with being the best amongst the mediocre. It can only come if we try to match ourselves with what is considered the best. Instead of repeating ad nauseum how well we are doing in everything in Africa, we should compare how well we are doing against Europe and the US. Benchmarking is important.
Education. Prevention is better that cure, the wise say. There is no better tool than education to ensure that the elderly are allowed to spend their last days in dignity. A widespread programme of education is necessary—for everyone! Society must be made aware that any contravention against the person of the elderly will be severely dealt with. Crucially, the elderly must be made aware of their rights and who to contact in case they feel these are being trampled upon.
Legislation. We know that many elderly people are abused in our society. The culprit may be a neighbour, an offspring, a relative, an employee, a member of the staff in a residential home, anybody and everybody. It is the duty of the State to ensure that cases of abuse do not occur and, when they do, strong sanctions are taken. For this, the legislature must ensure that social workers and other officers are empowered to carry out their investigations without let or hindrance.
Social Workers/District Nurses. There should be enough of these to attend to the needs of the elderly, especially those—singles and couples—living alone. Regular visits by social workers will ensure they get the necessary moral support and detect cases of abuse. The district nurse can attend to their medical needs and advise them on health matters including nutrition. If and when needed, the elderly must be given the help of a carer or home help, to enable them to continue living in their home as long and as far as possible.
Residential homes. There may come at time when the elderly person is no longer able to cope at home. In that case, they should be persuaded to move into a residential home. I know these are costly affairs, but government has a duty to ensure that people are well looked after in their twilight years. We must ensure that the home care is of a standard that attracts rather than dissuades people from going there. Strong legislation and uncompromising enforcement of standards by trained personnel are also essential.
Pensions. At present, the Old Age Pension (OAP) is inadequate, especially in cases where the dependent spouse has not reached their pensionable age and has no source of income of their own. Besides, even by government’s own definition of absolute poverty, the current OAP is way below the bread line. Something has to be done on this score. It is appreciated pensions cost a lot of money. Rather than beat our chest and proclaim our magnanimity in providing it free, we should seriously consider introducing a contributory OAP scheme that will ensure a decent pension for all, as it is in most advanced countries.
Conclusion. The hallmark of a civilized society is gauged by the standard of care it provides to its sick, its disabled and its elderly. Lets us make sure that ELDERLY care in our country meets the highest mark on that gauge.
1. What’s his status.
2. What will people say.
3. He is such a good boy, he looks so well after his parents.
* Published in print edition on 29 November 2013
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