Violence against Senior Citizens during Pandemic

Introduction

With “entrenched ageist attitudes” already undermining the autonomy of elder persons in making their own choices and decisions, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus further violence, abuse and neglect against them, a UN independent expert said on Monday, marking World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. 

“Distressing reports from care homes in different parts of the world showed neglect, isolation and lack of adequate services, including healthcare, social and legal services”, said Claudia Mahler, independent expert on the enjoyment of all human rights of older persons, in her message for the day, marked annually on 15 June. 

COVID-19 reports have mainly focused on the risk of infection and mortality rates among the elderly. However, the pandemic has had a far more devastating impact on the elderly population, made worse by their incorrect belief that they have no recourse.

The elderly are amongst the worst affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The extended lockdowns have affected their health due to lack of regular check-ups with a majority of them having little access to doctors. Besides, anxiety, loss of appetite, lack of physical activity or social life, sleeplessness and other factors are posing severe health challenges.

An increasing number of old people have also faced physical, psychological and emotional abuse from family members. The most common types of abuse are disrespect, verbal and physical abuse, isolation, neglect, lack of medical treatment, siphoning off their funds and forced work.

A six-city survey conducted by HelpAge India, an NGO that works for the rights of the elderly,  found this year that 62% of the respondents have experienced increasing ill-treatment and around 36% of residents in old age homes feel that abuse is prevalent in society. A study by Agewell India found that 58% of elderly respondents were abused by their families.

Trauma shaped by abuse

The 2021 HelpAge India survey reveals that primary abusers during the pandemic were sons (in 43.8%), followed by daughters-in-law (27.8%). Surprisingly, 14.2% of the respondents said that their daughters abused them. Around 60% of the respondents faced emotional and financial abuse while 58.6% physical abuse.

Imtiaz Ahmed, mission head of HelpAge India, says it received more than 1,000 calls to the Elder Helpline relating to abuse, violence and disputes in the second wave, up by 18% from the first. “The helpline received almost 20,000 calls in total in the second wave, a 36% increase since the first, with calls about counselling increasing by 111 % and requests for income support by 54%. COVID-19 has become the primary abuser, affecting elders in the worst ways possible.”

Vidya Shree, a psychologist, says, “Eighty per cent of the old population is hesitant to take counselling.” She cited an incident where one of her patients thought “he was complaining about his children and did not want to open up”.

The lockdown has driven families to the edge psychologically, financially and physically. “The older adult population I have counselled during the pandemic faced abuse due to financial dependency,” Vidya adds.

Property disputes causes primary cause of abuse

A 2015 survey, HelpAge India, found that 53% of the respondents were abused over “property and inheritance disputes”. The situation hasn’t changed. “Whenever property or bank balance is involved, children are only civilized with their parents till it is willed to them; later, the parents are kicked out,” says Malikarjuna, the founder of Ariake Old Age Home, in Kanakapura, Bengaluru.

Jay Narayan, 78, who stays at Ariake, says, “My son asked me to move out right after I transferred my property to him. I have been at the eldercare centre since then. What is more heart-wrenching is that my son has not even called since that day.”

Deaths caused by abuse

A police officer working closely with the Nightingales Medical Trust, Bengaluru, estimates that more than 24,000 old people were victims of harassment and abuse during the pandemic because they lack physical strength.

A senior counsellor at the Elders Helpline said that it has handled more than 30 cases of death of the elderly who were severely attacked.

In one such incident reported in 2005, the parents of Balkrishna Dalal, a diamond trader, jumped to death from the eighth floor of a building in Kemps Corner, Mumbai, leaving a note holding him and his wife Sonal responsible for harassment and abuse.

Old Age homes struggle for sustenance

The pandemic has also impacted old age homes. Before the pandemic, Ariake had a daily stream of visitors. Good Samaritans would visit the elderly and interact with them. Unfortunately, visits, donations and free supplies came to a complete halt during the pandemic

“We have a shortage of funds and sustaining on loans. Previously, we sheltered hundreds of old people, but we have shifted them to other charitable trusts. Now, we are sheltering only ten,” says Malikarjuna.

According to the 2021 HelpAge India survey, 34.1% of old age homes residents felt that the behaviour of their family members changes during the pandemic. “I had become part of this community. But I again feel isolated after most of the residents were moved out. I miss my son; I need someone to talk to,” says Ariake resident Lakshmi, 79.

Senior citizens are either denied or unaware of fundamental rights 

The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007, was passed by the Centre to provide for adequate maintenance and welfare of the older population by emphasising familial care. The Act directs states to form tribunals for every subdivision of a district to look into grievances of the elderly, particularly of those who do not receive proper food, shelter, clothing or medical treatment.

The legislation enables neglected parents and older persons to approach the tribunal if they can not maintain themselves from their earnings and property. Under Section 125(1)(d) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, parents who cannot maintain themselves can claim maintenance from their children.

The Act was expanded in 2019 and now the state has to appoint a maintenance officer to ensure the maintenance of the elderly population. The definition of ‘maintenance’ includes the safety and security of parents besides their food, clothing, housing and health care obligations.

Seeking Justice

Elsewhere, older persons and their families expressed despair and frustration over the lack of transparency and responsiveness to complaints raised with aged care services providers. 

The UN expert said that this undermines their access “to justice and to an effective remedy”, stressing that the dignity and rights of the elderly “do not have an expiration date in later life”.  

Access to justice encompasses the right to a fair trial, equal access to and equality before the courts, and just and timely remedies for human rights violations.  

Lack of detailed information and analysis “limits the possibility to reveal patterns of abuse”, which remain vastly under reported, and “determine the gaps in existing interventions”, as well as to “identify concrete action needed to provide adequate protection to older persons”, said the independent expert.  

 
‘Redress and remedies’  

“Older persons must not be left behind when seeking redress and remedies”, said Ms. Mahler, urging States to “adopt a binding international human rights instrument, as well as national legislation and measures, to ensure access to justice for older persons with full respect of their autonomy”.   

The instrument should include the provision of legal aid, counselling and support services, age-appropriate formats to share information on rights and complaints mechanisms and improved accessibility.   

Independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not paid for their work.

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