ALONE AND VULNERABLE - LIVING ON MEMORIES
• Mrs.C. ‘shares’ a house with her son and his family. After her husband’s death her son claimed the property was his. She stoutly asserted her right and the matter went to court. She is allowed only a room in the house and cooks separately. She spends her days in her daughter’s home, only sleeping at night in her own house.
• Mrs.A has been the unluckiest of all. Her two, no-good sons refused to let her give even a third of the property to her married daughter. They had secured power of attorney from their unsuspecting old mother and sold the three-storied house to a broker. She was left living in the small annexe to the house. A day came when her sons brought in goondas to evict her. Mrs.A. fled to her daughter’s home. She died of heartbreak within the year.” These are real stories, unembellished, as the writer has witnessed them.
“The Hindu” Dt.05/04/2009
Out of a population of six million people, 10 per cent of them being senior citizens, issues relating to care of the elderly are of great significance in Chennai. Mr.K.Radhakrishnan, Director, Dignity Foundation, Chennai, agrees. “ There is no doubt that elder abuse is increasing. In fact, our help line (044-24493165) gets about five or six calls specifically relating to elder abuse every month”. He says.
With years of experience working with the elderly, the Foundation has a set in place a meticulous system to handle calls from elders who claim they have been abused and, if necessary, provide intervention. A trained social worker and a volunteer visit the home and study the situation there. “Most of the calls we get are truly calls for help. There may be few instances where they are not, but we do not worry about them”.
The Foundation has also discovered that 95 per cent of the causes of abuse arise out of property disputes. “Children nag their parents to bequeath property to them even when they are alive. Some of them want all the property, denying their siblings. When the elderly refuse to do so, the abuse begins,” Mr.Radhakrishnan explains.
Senior geriatrician V.S.Natarajan agrees. He recounts the case of one of his patients from Purasawalkam (in Chennai). The elderly gentleman had two daughters and had split his property into three, bequeathing two thirds to his children equally and retaining one third for himself and his wife. While one daughter was settled in the US, he was living with other daughter in Chennai.
After her business failed she kept pressuring her father to give her the one third he had retained for himself. When he refused, she picked up a heavy rod and hit him on the head. The old man rushed to this geriatrician with bleeding injuries, Dr.Natarajan says, “This was a well-educated upper middle class family. Just goes to show that social status and wealth are no immunity against being abused in old age”, he adds.
India’s elderly population has risen from nearly two crores in 1951 to 7.2 crores in 2001. About eight percent of the population is over 60 and by 2025 that figure will cross 18 per cent. Life expectancy has risen from merely 29 years in 1947 to 63 years now.
There is a clear need for action on the policy and planning front. Random sops such as a lower tax slab or concessional train fares for senior, although welcome, do not couch the heart of the matter.
There are no signs of a pension fund for ensuring security for unorganized sector workers. There are too few old age homes and day-care centres and legislation for ensuring compulsory geriatric care in public hospitals is still awaited.
The only law for seniors came as late as 2007 when Parliament passed the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act.
This law is focused on the issue of maintenance and puts the responsibility squarely on the family with children, grandchildren and other relatives liable for paying a living allowance to the elderly. Abandonment of the old is punishable by imprisonment and fine. Maintenance tribunals are to be set up to provide speedy redressal. So far, some 15 States have set up tribunals.
The valuable clause of the Act is the provision for declaring void any property transfer by the elderly, if the relative to whom it is bequeathed does not maintain the person satisfactorily.
The law does not address the multiple problems of the elderly in a comprehensive manner. Clearly a much stronger law to protect the property, assets and human rights of the elderly is the need of the hour.