A recent article in a leading newspaper revealed that older women in India face more discrimination. They don’t even raise their voice against it. Here’s why.
As the world’s population progressively grows younger, it comes as no surprise that most global activities, advocacy and efforts center around the youth and the younger population. Even as one may acknowledge that there are exceptions to the rule, it is also true that age brings with it many issues: illness, physical discomfort, neglect and even mental health issues.
Against this backdrop, one can easily see that there are social structures that don’t account for the needs of aging women, their mental health and their needs, as much as they account for a younger demographic.
For the most part, while old age does bring its own set of challenges in its wake for all genders, women have it harder, arguably. That older women in India are more prone to developing psychological problems, that society is culturally and traditionally kinder to widowers than widows and that unemployment and the lack of a steady income affects women harder are some of the reasons why.
Women from the generation that currently frame the demographic of senior citizens in this day and age come from an era where their education, employment and financial independence were not invested in. Consequently, in instances where they are widowed, or are spurned out of their homes, or when ill health takes over, it is difficult for them to stand up on their own feet and rely on their own means.
Within the household, there are still many instances where senior citizens are abused and harassed. Everything from neglect and discrimination, to outright deprivation and violence are challenges that take a gendered lens, as women wind up facing this more than men. Socially, one can easily find that there is a glaring lack of resources and support systems for women in this age group.
The few old age homes that exist are either inadequately staffed, or staffed with part-timers and untrained personnel who lack the sensitization they need to care for older people. When there is a social and familial predisposition against senior citizens, especially women, the lack of sufficient enabling environments for them to remain healthy and looked after appears to follow like a natural corollary.
Aged women require not only appropriate medical care, but also psycho-social assistance which begins with the creation of an enabling environment. That many women have been sent out of their homes – either driven out or enrolled into an old age home on some pretext or the other – itself warrants that something bad enough has happened to affect their self-esteem and confidence. Add to the mix an environment that is not conducive to their well-being: think rude staff, abusive treatment, no one to talk to, socio-cultural stigmas and even frugal facilities. The end result is a horribly grim situation.
One of the most common narratives one hears from older people is that they feel ‘useless’ or ‘unwanted.’ Think about it from their perspective: after keeping house or working for years, when the ’empty nest syndrome’ sets in, and when nuclear families find no elbow room to spare for an aged parent, the setback in the form of neglect feels like a slap in the face. Following that, being displaced out of a familiar environment and thrown into the throes of an institution that becomes a new, unfamiliar surrounding creates a ‘refugee conflict’ of sorts. For older women in India, the additional burdens of culturally imposed stigma and the notion of ‘inadequacy’ for not being good enough complicate things further.
If we could create sensitized systems comprising personnel that are trained both, in their area of care-giving expertise and to be gentle and emotionally present for old people, we might be able to knock the domino and change the paradigm. Psycho-social rehabilitative assistance appears to lack the empathy and general sense of gentleness in caring for elders.
Some homes have been known to have used brute force to get old people to eat or take their medication, while the sheer use of language around them only keeps the polarization alive. Mental health in itself needs to be taken seriously and given due attention with appropriate empathy, care and sensitization. In its intersection with age and gender, mental health takes on a grimmer picture – particularly from the supply side of aid and assistance. We need to be able to take back that space appropriately for the well being of our older women.
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