Elder Abuse at Home

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Elder abuse is on the rise in India even as most senior citizens remain unaware of the law and redressal mechanisms. We took a look at findings from a recent survey and spoke to elder helpline counsellors  to find a bleak picture. 

Children harassing senior citizens for their deposits and property; Faking their signatures and taking a loan against the property; forcing them to register the property to their names; Children refusing to take elderly parents to the doctor for treatment; Not giving them their food or medication on time; Rude language and behaviour; threats to throw them out on the streets if they complain.

These are some of the instances of elder abuse that emerge after speaking to those working to prevent it. Given our cultural conditioning, it is expected that children, especially the son, would take care of parents in their old age. However, surveys and workshops by organisations working with elders like Helpage India, Nightingale’s Medical Trust, Bangalore show several instances of elder abuse where the immediate family is the main perpetrator. ‘The Son along with the Daughter-in-law is increasingly turning abuser. Surprisingly there is an emerging trend of the Daughter also turning abuser,’ says a 2014 study on Elder Abuse in India.

Elder abuse can be prevented or at least reported with a little awareness, which, sadly enough, is yet to come. 

Senior citizens in the country can avoid ill-treatment or abuse in the hands of their family under the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act 2007. The Act aims to prevent elder abuse by making it a legal obligation for children to provide maintenance to their parents. Under the Act, parents and grandparents who are unable to maintain themselves from their own income can demand maintenance from their children. The Act also provides for Childless Senior Citizens,’ who are unable to maintain themselves from their own income and can demand maintenance from their relatives. Maintenance in this case includes provision for food, clothing, residence, medical attendance and treatment.  

Unfortunately, awareness of the Act is extremely low among senior citizens in India, according to survey done by Helpage India in 2014. One in five elders is unaware of any currently available redressal mechanisms. The awareness about the Maintenance Act is very low, with only 14 % of abuse victims being aware of the Act.

A Walkathon in Mumbai to spread awareness about Elder Abuse Photograph courtesy: Silver Innings Foundation

A Walkathon in Mumbai to spread awareness about Elder Abuse
Photograph courtesy: Silver Innings Foundation

WHAT IS ABUSE 

The World Health Organization defines Elder Abuse as”a single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person.” According to WHO, Elder abuse can take various forms such as physical, psychological or emotional, sexual and financial abuse. It can also be the result of intentional or unintentional neglect.

As the Helpage survey states, most elderly associate Elder Abuse with disrespect, verbal abuse and neglect. Verbal abuse ranked the highest in  the survey, followed by neglect and disrespect. The 2014 survey also showed that Data shows that 50% of seniors experience abuse. Of the top metros, Delhi had the lowest percentage of abuse (22%) and Bangalore had the highest (75%) of elder abuse.

Most cities across India have helplines run by the police to help elders, often in association with eldercare NGOS. However, while many are aware of these Police Helplines, very few people approach them, fearing social stigma and isolation. According to the Helpage 2014 survey, fear of retaliation is a major factor in not reporting abuse, especially among seniors in Tier II cities like Nagpur.

Those who work with elder helplines are not surprised. “Seniors safeguard their children even if ill-treated by them,” says Sandhya, a counsellor at the Nightingales Elder’s Helpline in Bangalore. Established in 2002, the helpline is a joint initiative of the Bangalore City Police and the Nightingales Medical Trust to address elder abuse. It’s located at the Police Commissioner’s Office premises on Infantry Road and also offers free legal advice and counselling through alternative dispute redressal methods to senior citizens every Thursday and Saturday.  

Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Elder Abuse is a reality Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Staying Aware

The simple fact that many elders safeguard their children often leads to lesser cases being reported or resolved. Many elders feel it is their fate that they are being harassed by their own children and would rather tolerate it painfully than bring them to book. According to data available with the NMT Elder’s Helpline (upto 2014), they had received 7500 complaints and had resolved 3500. On an average the helpline receives 30-35  written complaints a month from senior citizens. Of these more than 20 cases are related to harassment by the family, mostly either the son or daughter-in-law. The Helpline has seen an increase in complaints over the years and feels that awareness about mechanisms such as these could help seniors in distress. They have been conducting workshops and talks at apartment complexes and retired employee associations to spread awareness about the Elder’s Helpline.

Sandhya feels elders need to step out of social shackles and report abuse. “We get 60-70 calls related to a day, out of which only one or two are converted into complaints ensuing in legal action. We cannot take action unless they give a written complaint and most senior citizens don’t want to give a written complaint against their own children.”

The other factor that leads to elders being easy targets for abuse is isolation. Many elders stay on their own with children away in other cities and are easy targets. One of the cases received by the Elders Helpline was of a couple who rented out a portion of their house to a tenant from their own community, thinking the cultural similarity would make it convenient. Unfortunately, the tenant not only refused to vacate the house but also verbally abused the elderly couple, who approached the helpline for intervention. 

There are also cases where the elderly have been forced by their children to gift the property to their children. Under the Maintenance Act, the tribunals give the option to challenge the gift deed if the elder was forced or was not of sound mind but the process remains a laborious and difficult one, says a counsellor who often comes across such cases in her work with the Elders Helpline.

Most people seem to be aware that elder abuse exists, though few are willing to do anything about it. The Helpage Survey conducted this year, focused on the younger generation and their perception and awareness of elder abuse. 73% of Indian youth (25-45 years) admitted that elder abuse existed. Shockingly enough, most of them were unwilling to do anything about it. In Delhi, 92% youth were not willing to act if they came across an instance of abuse.

“What is surprising is that the Youth of today ARE aware of problem, they understand the reasons which precipitate abuse. They have clear solutions on how to avert abuse, but yet seem unwilling to Act. Take the case of Delhi where 85% of the youth admit Elder Abuse exists yet 92% say that they won’t Act to prevent it,” says Manjira Khurana, Country Head, Advocacy & Communications, HelpAge India.

Measures to Prevent Abuse

Awareness of the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act 2007 is paramount. Many people also think that living in large joint families can help prevent abuse. 

Why are cases of abuse on the rise? According to those who work in the area, increased  life span of the elderly and a change in traditional family values have led to cases of abuse, exploitation and desertion of older persons. Elders suffer physical, emotional, and financial abuse in silence as ill-treatment and abuse occurs mostly within the family.

Gerontologist Dr Indira Jai Prakash says that elder abuse is still a hidden problem and both victims and people who would like to help victims find it difficult to define it adequately. While legal sanctions are necessary, there is also need to sensitize people about this issue. It is also vital to have a bottoms up approach so that people who are the main target or are potential targets are made aware of how to identify, prevent and protect oneself from such situation. Community can play a very important role in both preventing the abuse as well as empowering the elders to fight back against such violation of their basic human rights.

The NMT Elder’s Helpline team visits groups of seniors every month. Recently, they conducted a workshop with a retired employee association and just at that first instance came away with 10 cases of elder abuse. Sadly, none of the senior citizens, all of them ex-employees of a reputed PSU (public sector undertaking) had any idea of the 2007 Act. 

How does the Act help

Seniors can apply for maintenance to the Tribunal under Section 4 giving names, full details and addresses of the persons from whom they are demanding maintenance. If the senior citizen is incapable of making an application on their own, any other person or registered voluntary organization authorised by him/her can make the application. Upon receipt of the application, the Tribunal would issue notices to the children, conduct hearings, take evidence and order maintenance. Tribunal may also refer the case for reconciliation or pass interim orders for maintenance.

Helplines Across India (Run by Dignity Foundation, Helpage India, Nightingales Medical Trust and other NGOs in association with the city police)

Ahmedabad:1800-180-1253

Gujarat Police Help line 1096

Bangalore:1090 (Banglore City Police & Nightingale Medical Trust)

Dignity Foundation:  080 4151 1307/4166 1122, 1076  

Chandigarh Senior Citizen Helpline 1090 

Chennai Senior Citizen Helpline    1253 

Helpage India:044 2621 3908, 3850 

TN Senior Citizens’ Association: 044 4213 3002, 

Delhi Dada Dadi Help Foundation: 9212717171 | 9212050505 | 26260777

Delhi Senior Citizen Helpline : 1291 

Delhi Police: 1091

Delhi Police Senior Citizens Cell: 011-23490010/ 4336

Hyderabad Senior Citizen Helpline:  0901 047 0724

Indore Senior Citizen Helpline      0731 251 0308, 252 2111 

Kolkata Senior Citizen Helpline    98300 88884 

Pranam: 033 2419 0740 

Mumbai Senior Citizen Helpline   1298/1090 

Dignity  Foundation Helpline: 022- 61381111

Nagpur Silvers club helpline: 91 9371276575,  9503439201

Pune Senior Citizen Helpline: 1091/020 – 30439100 

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