Treat them with kindness

By Aimen Siddiqui
Tue, 06, 21

The idea behind old age homes is to provide a shelter to senior citizens to live with dignity in a compassionate, congenial environment. This week You! takes a look at different dynamics of old homes…

What comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘old age homes’? Abandonment? Neglect? Disobedient children? In our society, this word has always carried the negative connotation, making it hard for the concerned authorities to have a rational debate on the subject.

“An 80-something woman in the Clifton neighbourhood of Karachi was beaten to death by her grandson. The matter was brushed under the carpet.” SK (name omitted to protect privacy) narrates in a horrifyingly casual tone. “There was this woman who was an officer. She had no kids. After her retirement, she lived with her nephews and nieces. They sold her four-kanal house and deposited the money in their accounts. They used to beat her up. I don’t know where she is now, but the last time I saw her I couldn’t recognise her. She wasn’t in her senses.”

“This world,” SK continues, “is a strange place. You will hear about these cases and you will deliberately ignore them. You will say, ‘why should I say something to her family?’ Many people have to move away for their future. They can’t afford to bring their parents with them.”

The idea behind old age homes was to provide a shelter to senior citizens, with no families or abandoned by their children, to live with respect and dignity in a secure, compassionate, congenial environment. This week You! takes a look at different dynamics of old homes…

A matter of choice

“Karachi has the highest number of old age homes. Roughly, 90 per cent of people who are staying at old age homes are those whose children have sent them to these places by choice,” says Tahira Anas, a clinical psychologist and the founder of ‘Healing Souls’, an online based welfare group. “Also, as surprising as it may sound, a majority of people are those who come from financially strong backgrounds and their children can afford the living expenses of their parents. A minute number of people are those whose children are compelled to turn to old age homes for their parents’ sustenance as their financial standing doesn’t allow them to look after their aging parents. It won’t be wrong to say that the culture of sending parents to these places is gaining popularity within the country.”

Culturally, the Pakistani society looks down upon the concept of the old homes. However, Tahira feels one cannot force anyone to act in a certain way. She is of the opinion that the number of old age home should increase. “Being a psychologist, I am able to understand the devastating impacts of this form of coercion on people. There have been quite a few cases where children, spouses of children, and grandchildren have behaved quite badly with the elderly. There have been many cases where parents and grandparents are also regularly beaten. This is the result of the frustration that people face when they’re socially bound to keep the aging parents/grandparents at home. Many people don’t feed their parents regularly (resulting in them being extremely malnourished). Keeping in view this dangerous and negative impact, our society must promote these places and the authorities must take effective steps to set up more old age homes. It is the responsibility of the state to look after people,” she asserts.

Shedding light on the conditions of many old homes, Tahira highlights that there are areas that need improvement. “There are quite a few organisations that are not working efficiently to ensure that residents at these places have a healthy lifestyle. Some organisations don’t cook meat for months (and these are those who receive fairly good amounts of donation). some don’t have a resident psychologist and doctor. Critically ill patients are often left to die. The maximum that some of these organisations do is to feed over-the-counter drugs to them. On my frequent visits to these places, I have seen how some residents are heavily sedated. This isn’t the right way. Only through the state’s timely intervention these places will do away with these questionable practices. There has to be a psychologist who can provide counselling to these people; and a doctor who can treat them well.”

According to Tahira, there are more men at these places than women, and many of them are those who receive monthly pensions – which mostly go to their children who come on a regular basis to take their fathers to the bank to receive the pension. “They take the amount and drop them off at the shelter. In Western countries, people who are in their 70s or 80s are active enough to look after themselves. Here, people who are 50 and above lose all the strength that is required to lead an independent life. We have to start thinking about our old age too when we’re planning for our future,” says Tahira.

Reality bites

Anusha Sachwani

Anusha Sachwani, a social activist, who visits these shelters often, observes, “Unfortunately, a lot of these organisations, well-known ones, go overlooked. One time we gave a surprise visit to the one we always went to and you won’t believe what we witnessed. The stench was awful; you couldn’t stand in the room. It breaks my heart to see what goes on behind these closed doors. I know a lot of children at times are left with no choice. Sometimes, due to circumstances, we have no choice but to leave them to professional care, but that doesn’t mean we can forget them. There should be special conditions and rules set in place for those who have to leave their parent in such care. There should be proper checks, surprise visits, certain terms and conditions that both sides must meet with,” suggests Anusha.

“I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. I do agree that children shouldn’t be forced to keep their parents with them. Also, I have seen several cases where children are genuinely unable to look after their parents. They also regularly check on their parents. However, in my personal opinion, people shouldn’t send their healthy and active parents to these places. If your parents don’t have any psychological or physical issues and if they can look after themselves, they should stay at their homes. We often forget the role grandparents play in a child’s upbringing,” she highlights.

Anusha has a neutral view about this whole issue. And while she doesn’t out rightly shun the idea of these places, she does feel that it is important to live with your elders. “Their blessings are very important for your family and your house.”

Meraj Fatima

Meraj Fatima, an internal auditor and a social worker, believes that our young generation – people who are in the 25-35 age group – have a rigid set of priorities. “There are bills to pay; there is work pressure to deal with; and there is this intense need of networking that has forced people to lead an individualistic lifestyle. As a result, many people aren’t paying attention to the fact that their parents are getting old and are in need of intense care. It seems like yesterday when our energetic parents would take us in their arms and look after our basic needs. As time marches on – and as we happily accept the shift in our priorities – our parents lose their strength. The active lifestyle that they once had silently morphed into a life full of challenges and unknown medical conditions,” elucidates Meraj. She deems that the gradual shift in people’s priorities is the main reason for a rapid increase in the number of old people home in the city. Having volunteered at these organisations for more than seven years now, Meraj had a clear understanding of how these places operate. “We can divide these houses into two categories: paid and unpaid. Unpaid organisations usually become the second (and only) home to hundreds of people who leave their houses out of frustration. Other organisations charge fees. Such institutions can further be classified into registered and unregistered businesses. The latter face numerous financial challenges and are barely struggling to meet their operating costs. The ones that are registered, unfortunately, don’t have an impressive fate either. There is no system of checks and balances, and the government has totally ignored their very existence.”

Don’t send them away

Meraj, however, doesn’t think that parents should be sent to these places, “Do you know how a sparrow makes her nest? She collects the stalks and roots of plants and builds her home. She spends days on it, and, finally, enjoys the warmth and comfort of her tiny house. Humans, too, build their houses brick by brick. At a certain age, people start falling in love with the inanimate walls of the house. How will they feel when they’re asked to go away from their houses – the house that was built upon their sweat and tears?” She tells in a matter-of-factly tone, “If a person can pay somewhere between Rs 15,000 and Rs 20,000 (excluding medicines) for their food and shelter (accommodation), why can’t they let them live in their nests? Why can’t they arrange for a caretaker at home?”

Staying away from one’s family is indeed painful (a pain that probably cannot be expressed in words), Meraj has closely seen people’s restlessness. She has seen how the patient eyes longed for the sight of their children – their blood. “We are volunteers. We are not their family. And, yes, we do whatever it takes to make them happy; we can never take the place of their children.” Festivals, especially Eid, are the most depressing time, “On Eid days, every knock on the door brings hope. And every new visitor callously quashes the newly reignited hope.”

Take responsibility

Meraj, however, does understand the problems that people may face when it comes to keeping their parents at home. “There may be hundreds of reasons for them and I don’t want to contest that. However, I think children must visit their parents regularly. They should call them every day. These people want listeners. And children should be there for them. Whenever we visit them, we don’t really do much for them. We sit with them and talk. It’s so sad to see that most of these people don’t have the will to live. They silently wait for the angle of death to take them away to the Neverland.”

Tahira Anas

Agreeing with what Tahira Anas said earlier, Meraj expresses that there are no psychologists, doctors, and physiotherapists at these shelters. “We have adopted the concept of old age from Western countries, but we have failed to provide the same facilities that those organisations provide to their citizens. It is the responsibility of the government to supervise at least those shelters that are registered. If you’re allowing an organisation to operate in the city, you should see how they’re working.”

The scribe reached out to a couple of old age homes that didn’t provide comments on their operations. However, the regular posts on their social media pages show the impressive work that these organisations have been doing for the elderly.

Finally, it rests on the government to create a system of checks and balances to monitor such organisations. State institutions are responsible for providing its citizens security and facilities, hence, it should also take steps to look after the weak and elderly.