Billed as one of the biggest religious events ever, the massive Hindu festival of Maha Kumbh Mela attracted media attention all over the world. Photographs of devout pilgrims filled magazines and newspapers in India and elsewhere: naked fakirs, swarms of people streaming into the Ganges to wash away their sins or offering prayers to the sun. Journalists had a field day.
In the welter of media coverage a small report about a rather ugly incident got completely ignored. Many people, it seemed, were using the festival as an excuse to abandon old women. They’d take them along – grandmothers, an old aunt, a widow – on the pretext of making a pilgrimage to a holy place and then simply leave them stranded among the thousands. In all probability these women would not have been able to find their way back home – sometimes hundreds of kilometres away. They would certainly not be likely to have enough money to buy themselves a train passage. In all likelihood they would have ended up begging. Or simply died from starvation, neglect or loneliness, with no-one to care for them – a very convenient ‘solution’ to the problem of dependent old people.
Of course this is nothing new. In lots of countries old people are treated as discards and old women are even more expendable. The methods may differ but the basic philosophy is the same. In the more ‘developed’ countries they’ve institutionalized this expendability by setting up old people’s homes. But in Southern countries that respect for age which we were so boastful about seems to have disappeared. Indeed, we need only look at the increasing numbers of wars and conflicts, or even at disasters like earthquakes or floods, and the truth of this is borne out. Old people (especially older women) are the first to be abandoned, the last to be rescued, the last to be fed and clothed. And in today’s global market the disregard and disrespect for age is even more glaring. You have only to be on the other side of 50 (or sometimes even 40) to know that you have been effectively written off the employment map.
Countries where there’s institutionalized care for the aged, whether it is state-sponsored or private, are more honest about recognizing they have a responsibility – even if it is fulfilled in an impersonal way. In the South we’re more hypocritical. We use religion and culture as excuses for what are basically acts of inhumanity. They become convenient excuses to relegate to the margins those we no longer want: the poor, the disabled, the elderly.
But what is it that allows us to reject people we have once been close to – people who have given up the better part of their lives to make things better for us?
It’s understandable that those in extreme poverty might think themselves unable to bear the burden of non-income-earning family members. But it’s not the poor who reject the elderly in our societies: any visit to a poor village or settlement provides evidence of this. The elderly are respected, attended to and looked after. There’s a place for them in the community.
Instead, increasingly, it’s the middle classes and the rich who find excuses to get rid of elderly people. It’s not that they don’t have money to look after them: everywhere in the world the middle classes have more and more money to spend. In some cases it’s not even that they don’t have the inclination. It’s simply that – and this is the tragic thing – they don’t have the time and they can’t be bothered to find it. More, the predominance of market-driven consumerism with its emphasis on youth makes it much more difficult to give attention to the aged. After all, in countries like India the elderly don’t have much buying power. So why give them any importance as consumers?
Do we really need to be reminded that old age comes to all of us? And that with improvements in healthcare and living standards we’re all going to live longer than earlier generations did? While our bodies may age, our minds often stay alert and active. How will we feel when we reach old age and are relegated to the margins? This disregard, this rejection that we exercise so casually could have repercussions for us all.
Maybe it’s time to remind ourselves that the age profile of the human family is changing everywhere. And that soon there will be more older people than ever before. If the young keep searching for excuses to reject the elderly, they’ll only succeed in making the world a poorer place – culturally, intellectually and spiritually.
Why not start thinking of people as people, regardless of their age? Instead of spending money on creating institutions in which to house the old, why not spend some time on learning respect and empathy? Those lessons are free – and invaluable.
Urvashi Butalia is an Indian writer and publisher. She lives in New Delhi.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7