Elderly people ranging from 60-year to 80-year-olds toiling away to eke out a living is a common sight in Dhaka. They are seen engaged mainly in manual work; some of these jobs are back-breaking. The other day a newspaper photograph has shown two tired and haggard-looking old people pulling a van filled with heavy drinking-water jars. The city people have long become inured to such types of views. Even extremely old people pedalling cycle-rickshaws with more than two robust youths boisterously frolicking on the seat, and prodding the poor old man into adding to his speed is not uncommon. Elderly porters and vendors and female housemaids are normal urban views in Dhaka.
But reverse pictures are also there. Not all strongly built city persons are insouciant to the old people. One can turn to the travels by Dhaka's public transports like bus. Leaving one's comfortable seat to a standing and precariously wobbling old man is not much rare in this city notorious for its haughtiness and lack of compassion. These sights stand in stark contrast to the blatant misbehaviour the bus conductors or helpers mete out to the elderly passengers. However, the elderly population in the country, cities and villages alike, is still held in high esteem and treated with the honour their age deserves. Unlike in most of the Western countries, where the elderly enjoy special privileges in every segment of life, in Bangladesh and the other oriental countries they are showered with love and respect. These nations do not stop at mere calling the old people 'senior citizens'; they feel that they have endless duties towards their elderly loved ones, especially their parents. Social experts ascribe the working of this virtue to the age-old Eastern tradition of respecting the elderly. Notwithstanding the disintegration of joint families and the spread of nuclear ones, the youths today have yet to cut ties for good with their old fathers and mothers. Despite hardship and space constraints, the nuclear families still keep provisions for making one or both parents part of their families. Like in all the tiers of the family set-up, exceptions are there. In these cases, the parents are left behind in their village homes. Many of them are made to manage their own living. In extreme cases, the down-and-out old people are made to engage in a desperate struggle for survival. As a sop of sorts, their now city-based children send them new clothes and paltry sums of money on the occasions of Eid and other festivals. A few of them even make short trips to their ancestral villages.
Against the backdrop of this more or less elderly-friendly country, the recent trend of keeping old people dumped in 'shelters' or 'homes' appears something aberrant. It doesn't normally go with the nation's centuries-old tradition and culture. Apart from their family circles, the senior citizens enjoy a special status at community and broader social levels. Even in this mindboggling digital age, youths are often seen approaching the wise old people to seek advice on different issues. It's a handy way out, one that takes people out of crises. Due to their long life enriched with different types of experience, the old people eventually emerge treasure-troves of wisdom and knowledge. Not only in Bangladesh, in lots of less advanced countries having an agro-feudal past, the newer generations are found to be mostly respectful of their elderly. Notwithstanding the online-bred time befitting counsels and guidance tips, the wise words from neighbourhood seniors are still viewed as effective. In spite of the easy availability of tailor-made and ready-to-use solutions, youths in the tradition-bound nations feel comfortable with the remedies in use since ancient times. The solutions at times might seem archaic and sharply in conflict with the contemporary values. But their quaint and soothing appeal is irresistible.
The trend of consigning 'unproductive' old men and women to banishment at desolate old people's homes is relatively new in Bangladesh. Despite its increasing prevalence in the upper social strata, newly emerging well-off middle class families have also been seen picking the trend. In many respects it is anachronistic with the Bangladesh society; at times it is even antagonistic. In the industrialised world, the elderly are assured of almost all their basic needs --- shelter, food, medical care, recreation etc. The socially marginalised elderly in the poorer countries lack almost all of these facilities --- especially medical care. Lives of many otherwise able-bodied senior citizens are cut short due to their inaccessibility to medicines. The old people in the affluent nations lack one thing glaringly; the profusion of which makes the elderly in the developing nations highly privileged in relation to their compatriots in the developed world. It is the unalloyed love and compassion. Mere day-to-day comforts turn out to be meaningless unless it is accompanied by human warmth. Given the status enjoyed by the elderly in Bangladesh society, it might take a long time for the old people's homes to become a common view in the country. The country is on way to graduate into a middle-income one. In many respects, the nation still is stuck in poverty. As demonstrated by global socio-economic indices, the performance of Bangladesh has yet to attain a permanently impressive shape. Even in this vulnerable reality, the older sections of people in society are made to be entitled to token monthly allowances. For a developing country like Bangladesh, this is no mean achievement.
However, in proportion to the vast numbers of the elderly across the country, the social safety net aimed at them is still quite narrow. Moreover, inefficiencies and ill mismanagement-related problems afflict the welfare programmes. What has still kept the old-age allownce programme aloft is its inherent message: letting the country's old people live in peace, with their basic survival needs met. As a nation inseparable from its age-old social mores, along with the values passed on to it from the past, Bangladesh people cannot neglect its elderly. Times are changing fast, with people getting hooked on changed lifestyles. Yet some basic social values are set to last longer than social observers fear. Revering the elderly is one of them. The nation has given birth to many a great old person. They include sages, mystics, philosophers, teachers --- and even ordinary but intellectually gifted self-taught people. Bangladesh takes pride in them. It seems unlikely that the country will see anytime soon the presence of the likes of the lonely father King Lear, raving and ranting in a storm or the mother Ursula left to die out in a derelict, deserted house -- whom we see in Gabriel Garcia Marcos' novel 'One Hundred Years of Solitude'.
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