Every Tuesday, Ambika Vyas (name changed), who runs a garment shop in Hyderabad with her husband, makes it a point to visit her neighbourhood temple dedicated to the Hindu god Ganesha. She visits the temple in the afternoon, when it is usually not crowded.
After offering her prayers, Vyas, 44, sits at the entrance of the temple recalling and regretting the abuse her mother went through for almost a decade before her death. “I pray to Lord Ganesha for forgiveness for what happened to Maa,” she says. “She went through hell and she never told me. Maa died three years ago. She was 67. I blame myself for her suffering and for not being a good daughter.”
Unfortunately, Vyas’s mother was one among hundreds of elderly persons in India who faced abuse and was often silent about their sufferings.
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According to the Longitudinal Ageing Study in India (LASI), at least five per cent of India’s elderly population (aged 60 years and above) said they experienced ill-treatment in 2020.
The LASI is a national survey of scientific investigation of the health, economic and social determinants and consequences of population aging in India. Elder abuse is not India-centric. It is a global Gordian knot.
According to the US-based charitable organisation National Council on Aging (NCOA), an advocacy group for the elderly, elder abuse is a silent problem that robs seniors of their dignity, security and — in some cases — costs them their lives.
“Up to five million older Americans are abused every year, and the annual loss by victims of financial abuse is estimated to be at least $36.5 billion,” said NCOA.
After Vyas’s father died 14 years ago, her mother went to Mumbai to stay with her son and his family. “Unfortunately, my brother and his family mistreated her,” she says. “They abused Maa emotionally and financially. She was under a lot of stress. I never knew about her troubles. She never told me and I was too busy with my family and business. Had it not been for Maa’s diary — chronicling the neglect, abuse and trauma — I would have never known the truth.”
As per the data, the abuse of elderly people is growing across the world. However, the silence surrounding it makes the issue more frightening, experts say.
“There is a lot of stigma attached with abuse, especially of senior citizens,” said Mohini Naik, a 72-year-old former teacher for mentally challenged children from Bengaluru who is now a part of an online club for elderly people.
“My friends — all elderly — don’t talk about their personal lives. We talk about food, cinema and games but not even about loneliness — a common thread that links us all in coronavirus times.”
The consequences of elder abuse are serious. It can lead to psychological trauma, physical injuries, hospitalisation, premature death, abandonment and homelessness.
Experts have identified abuse of senior citizens (those who are above 60 years) as physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, financial exploitation, confinement, neglect and abandonment. Most often, the elderly experience abuse from their family members such as children and spouses. Many reports also confirm the institutional abuse faced by the elderly at nursing homes, assisted living and other facilities.
Like everybody else, the lives of elderly people too have been hugely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic in the past few years.
‘The silent tormentor (Covid-19 and the elderly)’, a 2021 report by HelpAge India, an organisation working for the elderly, found evidence of wide-scale abuse faced by seniors.
HelpAge India interviewed 3,526 people (both elderly and caregivers) from six cities — Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad. The respondents were both from the informal (households) and formal (old age homes) settings. A total of 2,513 seniors and 503 caregivers were interviewed in the informal setting, and 402 seniors and 108 caregivers in the formal setting.
The report highlighted the following points for those who stay at home:
- 62.1% felt that the risk of getting abused has increased during the Covid-19 pandemic
- 61.4% said that the prevalence of ‘work from home/study’ affected their day-to-day routine. This sharply contrasts with the perspective of caregivers, 71.6% of whom said it did not affect the elders’ day-to-day routine
- 29.2% felt a change in behaviour of their caretakers/family members/friends/domestic help/others during the pandemic
- 43.1% elders said that elder abuse is prevalent in society
- 15.6% said they were victims of elder abuse
- Disrespect (45.6%) and beating/slapping (23.1%) were the main forms of abuse
- Main abusers were son (43.8%) and daughter-in-law (27.8%). And 14.2% said that their abusers were their daughter
- On a ranking basis, emotional abuse (60.1%) was the main form of abuse, followed by financial abuse (61.6%) and physical abuse (58.6%)
Regarding elders in old-age homes, the HelpAge India report shared the following findings:
- 36.1% said elder abuse is prevalent in society
- 26.9% said they have been victim of elder abuse. Of those abused, 48.7% had been abused by their children, 23.1% relatives, 23.1% by cleaners/maintenance staff and 20.5% by the old age home managers or owners
- Of those abused, 74.4% faced disrespect, 25.6% beating/slapping, 30.8% verbal abuse and 17.9% economic exploitation
- Of those abused in the last one year, 56.4% indicated their old-age-home caretaker as the abuser and 23.1% indicated family members
- 65.5% of those abused felt that the Covid-19 pandemic has increased the risk of elder abuse
- Emotional Abuse (60%), financial abuse (40.7%), physical abuse (31%) and psychological abuse (18.6%) are the main types of abuse faced by those during the pandemic
- 34.1% of the elderly in the old age homes felt a change in the behaviour of caretakers/family members during the pandemic
- 64.7% of the elderly at old age homes attended counselling sessions organised at the homes.