As we embark on a New Year, I have this feverish question: when and how did it start happening that the younger generation is more and more discarding parents and cutting them out of their lives?
Breaking a long tradition of taking a year-end vacation in India, I stayed at home during the past three weeks. While visiting friends and relatives, I was dumbfounded by the outpouring of sad accounts of elderly parents being abused by their own offspring.
I did some quick research – speaking to officials from family welfare agencies and homes for the aged – and was deeply touched by the plight facing senior citizens.
The poignant tales of residents of old age homes drove home the sordid reality: children are abandoning a value system that placed high reverence and respect on those who were once their guiding lights. Sensitivity and emotions are dying – their place filled by a quest for material possessions and physical comfort.
It is true that at the Aryan Benevolent Home in Chatsworth, an old man would polish his shoes every Saturday morning in the false belief that his son would be coming to fetch him. Apparently when he was forsaken at the home for the aged, he was assured by his son that it was only for a few days and he would soon be back to take him to his house.
I also heard how a six-year old girl who adored her grandmother was told by her parents that the old woman was sick and was being admitted to hospital. A few weeks later while on a school excursion to the ABH, the girl was shocked to find her grandmother, sadness etched on her face, languishing in one of the wards with a dozen other equally cheerless old women.
I have a soft spot for old people and was understandably moved when an old woman of about 75 told me at a home for the aged that she felt ashamed to be a mother after hearing her son tell a caregiver that she had become “a living nightmare for my wife and kids”.
“That’s how my son, my own flesh and blood, described me while discarding me here for the rest of my life. I can’t even begin to describe the pain I felt.
“I cooked all the meals at home for my son and daughter-in-law. My grandchildren loved me and would fight for a place in my arms. I spoilt them with sweets and toys that I would buy each month with my grant money. How I yearn to hold and hug them again,” the woman said, with tears rolling down her deeply creased cheeks.
Another woman sitting right next to and who was listening to our conversation with a stone-cold face, started on her own: “I gave birth to three sons and gave them all university education. Now see what they have done to me.
“One of them has a good job in America. The other two are well-settled financially in Durban. They have got everything for themselves, but nothing for me.
“I have racked my mind to try to work out what I have done that could have justified the abandonment. I am at a loss to what I’ve done or said.”
Although Lotus FM was blaring on a radio on the side pedestal, one old woman seemed not to be listening. Staring blankly into the distance, her only hope was that her son will return to pick her up and take her back to the familiarity of her house.
At ABH, the wards were full of visitors on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Sons and daughters arrived in German sedans with bulging gift bags filled with biscuits, chocolates, fruit cake, cosmetics and toiletries – as if the goodies were meant to quash their feelings of guilt as they rushed back to their palatial homes in gated estates to prepare for parties with young relatives and friends. This scenario, I am certain, was being replicated at old age facilities all over.
The radically changing social architecture and decaying moral values are responsible for older folk being regarded as a burden by their own children.
Yet all religions teach us that parents are priceless and deserve a pedestal equal or higher than the Gods.
“Matha Pitha Guru Deivam” is a very popular Sanskrit phrase often quoted in Hinduism. Translated it means “Mother Father Teacher God” and dictates the order in which one should offer reverence and respect.
Honour your father and your mother is one of the Ten Commandments. The Bible says that children who dishonour their parents or treat them with contempt will be cursed.
Respecting parents is one of the most significant aspects of Islam. In the Quran it is stated that one must be kind to parents, and when they attain old age, “say not to them a word of contempt, nor repel them, but address them in terms of honour”.
It is clear that the definition of family is transforming from all-inclusive to “me, my wife and my kids”. Hence, young people are turning a blind eye to their parents and see them more as an obligation and not a part of the nuclear family, deserving of love and care.
A generation brought up by parents who faced all kinds of political, social and economic woes and hardships to give them a good education now believes their lives are complicated if their parents continue to live with them.
Social workers have complained about another disturbing face of the growing geriatric problem: a steep rise in the number of cases involving violence against senior citizens. Sons do not think twice about raising their hands on their fathers. Daughters-in-law are hitting mothers-in-law, locking them in rooms and withholding food.
As if dumping parents in old age homes is not bad enough, worse still is that many merciless children first force their parents to transfer the ownership of their houses to them. Unemployed children are known to be living off their parents’ old age State grants.
Is it not time that there were laws pertaining to the well-being of elderly people? Parents should have the right to the earnings of their children along the lines of alimony. Parents denied proper treatment and respect by their children should have the right to revoke a will in which they may have planned to bequeath their property and assets to their children.
Above all, abandoning parents must be made a criminal offence – just as child abandonment is. I will go as far as saying that ditching parents should be tantamount to murder of the most gruesome kind.
The new generation has become too self-involved. Families are now no longer based on biological connections – friends have burrowed themselves into today’s family unit.
If your estrangement from your parents is because you are too busy or they are not good enough or their behaviour is embarrassing because you have moved up a notch on the social scale, then you have an ethical problem. You need to take a look at yourself and what kind of human being you are.
Don’t forget what is young today will be old tomorrow. And the Law of Karma is very precise.
Yogin Devan is a media consultant and social commentator. Share your comments with him on: firstname.lastname@example.org