When a nation starts failing its elderly people

Shihab Sarkar | Published: May 31, 2018 21:18:19 | Updated: June 01, 2018 20:42:53


Like all other South Asian countries, Bangladesh holds its senior citizens in veneration. In spite of the newer realities set against a fast-changing social scenario, the elderly people have continued to enjoy their esteemed status in society. Traditionally they are considered a reliable guide, and persons to turn to in times of crises. But signs of attitudinal changes vis-à-vis the old people have started appearing.

The recent incident of physically assaulting an old man leading to his death may prompt many to feel highly disconcerted. Occurrences of such hideous violence are not rare in the country.  And their increased frequency lately is worrying.  That a trifling matter of borrowing a sum of Taka two thousand and five hundred by a young man and the delay in its repayment can result in the tragic death of his elderly father smacks of troubling portents. The fault of the poor old man was he picked an argument with the lender in his son's defence. The lender, along with his family members, barged into his house to realise the money borrowed by his son. The young man was not at home. The old man's sad death in a village in Sujanagar in Pabna district gives a grim portrayal of the gradual fall of the country's elderly people from their past lofty height. The country's old people do not deserve this type of raw deal. For, their contribution to society in disseminating wisdom has remarkably shaped the nation. The new generation may not realise or recognise this. But it has continued through the ages. To put it without mincing words, the brutal, and finally fatal, assault on the village old man has in fact laid bare the extent of decay being undergone by the country's rural society.

The cities are no better. In the large cities of Bangladesh, 60-year- and 70-year-olds doing back-breaking menial jobs are a common spectacle. Due to their physical and mental soundness and capabilities, the elderly continue to enjoy a certain value in the underprivileged class. As long as they remain active, they can wield considerable power among the family members. It is conspicuous by its absence in the upper and middle class ambiences. That they are aged and have passed through scores of experiences, sweet and sour, do not add to their weight in family status. This applies to both socio-economically lagging and well off people. In some way, the middle and upper middle-class elderly people are worse-off. Due to the typical middle-class cover of privacy coupled with secrecy, the plight of many old people remains confined to the family bounds. The exact state of the senior citizens hardly reaches the people outside. In many cases, the elderly parents and grandparents in a family are made to put up with the neglect and discrimination meted out to them. In spite of their helplessness and the feeling of being subtly persecuted, they have to accept the grim reality. The only respite in this ordeal comes in the form of company they get from children in the family. The elderly in the joint and extended families are generally found more neglected than those in today's nuclear families. With their earlier robustness all but drained out, the old people in large families are viewed as a drag. An enlightened and humane family atmosphere, however, is a better place for the elderly. No matter to what extent they are shorn of their privileges, they are not deprived here of their ceremonial importance.

As part of a general view, the elderly people continue to be valued for their experience and wisdom in many tiers of Bangladesh society. In fact, this is what has ensured a place of reverence and dignity for the elderly in many ancient communities. The largely tradition-dictated societies are not different from them. This country belonged to this group not too long ago when nonagenarian and centenarian patriarchs used to have the last say in many a familial, social and community-level crisis. Like the wizened and elderly women in matriarchal societies, the patriarchs in this land were viewed as an endless source of folk knowledge, wisdom and scholarship. Losing these people and shoving them into social margins is set to go down in the nation's history as a dark chapter.   

Like childhood, adolescence, and youth, old-age too has also its own beauty. A combination of full maturity, experience, and learning --- folk or otherwise, a gracefully aging person is an asset to society. Many great people remain vibrantly energetic and creative in their old age. A lot of others love to retire into a world of reflections and meditative observations. Both the groups enrich society. The essence of old age has been immortalised by many famous people. Author and philosopher Aldous Huxley observes, "The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm." Similar words come from Victor Hugo. He says, "When grace is joined with wrinkles, it is adorable. There is an unspeakable dawn in happy old age."

Like all age-groups, the old people deserve to be viewed against a wide socio-familial backdrop. On this count, Bangladesh is no different from the other South Asian countries. The disadvantaged position of the aged caused by their inability to adapt to social changes began barely two decades ago. That the older sections of people are born to remain undisturbed in their exclusive retreats has always been believed as universal truth. It did not, however, last finally. To the distress of people in love with conventions, disaffection with the elderly began creeping in. At one point, this malady mustered the power to overwhelm all strata of society. The rot surfaced first in the cities with all its ugly features. As time wore on, the rural areas also turned vulnerable.  The urban encroachment on the stretches thought to be frozen in time had been inevitable.  Despite being a tradition-bound region, South Asia let itself be swept away by many alien trends. Excluding the visibly feeble elderly people from the mainstream life was one of them. It finally emerged as a catalyst to the cruel segregation of the elderly from the broadly focused social activities. The young appeared to have taken the helm; they loved to do so. They found it hard to resist the temptation to lead. People sardonically called this change of guard self-styled. The young did not bother to lend an ear.

Traditional values tend to take a backseat in the urban landscape around the world. As part of it, cities around the globe in the modern times are found growing their discomfort with many widely held social practices. The previously honoured senior citizens, thus, began 'falling from grace' in family and social perspectives. Compared to many other regions, South Asia stands apart distinctively with its propensity to remain bound by time-honoured traditions. Notwithstanding the distressing changes in the social positions of the elderly, they still evoke admiration and sympathy among the general people. Cruelties unleashed on people by hostile elements in the close circles are not seen in any particular age-group. Children and young women are also found falling victim to savageries. The inhuman treatment meted out to the old man in the Pabna village may have been an isolated event. But it was real --- stark and blatant.

There is, however, a different aspect to it. Despite the headlong plunge of many long-upheld values, this nation has yet to turn its face completely away from the aged. It can take pride in this trait possibly for some more time. Semblances of love and respect for the aged are still struggling to remain in place. If the vestiges of this national attribute are made to blow away in ominous gales, nothing can stop us from becoming awfully bankrupt. Few are prepared to see a repetition of incidents like that occurred in the Pabna village.      

shihabskr@ymail.com

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