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Caring for the elderly: A tradition in danger

We have always believed in strong filial piety and community bond. In fact, this is one distinct trait that sets the Bhutanese apart from most other societies. We are closely interconnected and our lives and bonds, interwoven. We belong to a society where neighbors drop by without asking, and friends crash into each others’ places for sleepovers. This is a good thing because human beings need to be in close contact with each other, even if it is just a select circle, to keep going. We need the support and intimacy that come from creatures similar in nature and biology.

Which is why when we start hearing of elderly citizens being abandoned, living in penury or worse, being meted emotional and physical abuse, it is time to get concerned. A first of its kind study on elderly citizens in Bhutan released by the National Statistics Bureau (NSB) revealed that 17.83% of the respondents had suffered verbal abuse, followed by 16.67% of economic abuse. Neglect was suffered by 12.5% of the respondents while 12.4% and 5.43% suffered emotional and physical abuse respectively. Around 42% of respondents reported being neglected by children.

What is causing the social fabric to disintegrate? Why is the younger generation turning increasingly insensitive and cold? The malaise seems to run into the soul producing heartless children who fail to return the love they received from their parents. Where is the gratitude, the compassion, the empathy? Are our elderly parents to be put up with only as long as they can help around with running the household? Or are they just meant to replace babysitters for their children’s children?

While it is true that most parents would not mind doing all this, what happens when they fall sick or lose memory, sight and agility? There are no old-age homes in the country, and the authorities seem to be dilly dallying because they expect children to look after their parents and do not want to disrupt familial bond patterns that are in line with the country’s cultural and religious traditions.

But when we see social media posts about how an ageing man is moving toward the river to drown his sufferings, we are left wondering. When we hear stories of abandoned parents back in rural pockets who have to do backbreaking farm labor or those who survive on a minimal kidu, we are left wondering. Have we hardened ourselves so much?

One chief value seems to be missing here: love. Yes, simply love. We as a society have become used to apathy and antipathy. We have forgotten finer feelings; purer forms of expressions. We need to ask ourselves: what is desensitizing us? Materialism? Busyness? Hedonism? What shallow pursuits are threatening our values and principles?

Once in a while, it is good to contemplate: ask ourselves questions. Where are we headed as human beings and pertinently as caretakers? We cannot always ask “the relevant authorities” to look into the matter. We have to look into the matter. Everyone has had someone-a parent or elder who has played a crucial role in our growth and upbringing.

Some may argue that parents did not bear children as insurance for old age. But it is not about the parents. It is about the children. We, as responsible children are duty bound to care for our ageing, ailing parents and elders. This is who we are. The authentic individual.

We cannot risk more sorrows, heartbreaks and premature deaths in a world that is already in so much pain. We need to care. So what if we cannot provide the best food, clothes and accommodation? Our mere presence and the awareness that we care will bring the elderly respite from trouble and pain.

Some might not have had the best of childhoods and this often overflows in resentment and bitterness toward their parents but we must forgive. Forgiveness brings healing. It is catharsis for the bleeding.

Ultimately, we must admit that our elders deserve love and respect because they are the reason we are here. And remember, do unto others how you want others to do unto you. Our children, too, are watching.

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