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Actor Ranbir Kapoor being trolled for not living with his mother at this time reeks of patriarchy. Let people grieve as they wish!
Recently, actor Ranbir Kapoor was trolled for not living with his mother, at a time when his father, noted actor Rishi Kapoor had passed away. This reeks of two things patriarchal. A ‘good son’ should always live with parents, and the elderly can’t manage without their children to ‘take care’ of them. Both wrong!
In a society like India, where family relationships are emphasised, children who live away from their parents, especially sons and daughters-in-law, are often made to feel guilty for living away from their parents. However, parents living alone are not necessarily at a disadvantage, and their children are not automatically ‘bad.’
When photos and videos of Ranbir Kapoor arriving to and leaving from his parents’ house after the funeral rituals for his father appeared online, they were immediately followed by comments criticising him for leaving his mother alone when she is grieving. Some commenters went far enough to attribute this to his ‘lust’ for his girlfriend being stronger than his love for his mother.
I really didn’t know all these people were present when Ranbir and his mother, Neetu, had the conversation about where he should stay, and he mercilessly told her that she should live alone! (insert eye roll).
I’m sure that the Kapoors themselves are above all this, and don’t really care what random netizens have to say about their relationships. They certainly don’t need me to defend them, and this post is not really about them.
However, the comments are indicative of how we think about the elderly and their problems, and that deserves a discussion.
First, there is the fact that somehow the responsibility of caring for parents seems to land only on the shoulders of sons and daughters-in-law. Daughters-in-law especially, are judged for leading the ‘obedient and sincere son’ away from his parents. And here, (shame, shame!) the son is not even married to the woman he is living with in ‘lust’! Bad son!
Daughters, even those who are independent, or only children, are exempted from such care-taking, as they are considered ‘outsiders’, to their parental home. For example, Ranbir’s sister, Riddhima too lives away from her mother, but no judgements have been passed about her character or her love for her parents.
Often, even if they want to, women find it difficult to take care of their parents, because they don’t have the necessary resources or autonomy. Even if they manage to do so, a daughter who actively takes up the responsibility is criticised for ‘ignoring’ her in laws.
Similarly, a son in law who does even a little more than the bare minimum for his in-laws is either praised sky high, or accused of abandoning his ‘own’, in favour of ‘others’. His wife is judged for pulling him ‘to her side’.
Sexism works on many levels here, often pitting woman against woman, and placing undue pressure on men.
Secondly, we have been conditioned to believe that the ONLY way to be loving and respectful of one’s parents is to live with them, and hover over them every living moment of our lives. Anyone who does not do so, is automatically believed to be shirking their duty. The ‘Baghban syndrome’ I call it. It creates unrealistic expectations, both from children and from their elderly parents.
My own paternal grandmother was a fiercely independent woman. She had very strong likes, dislikes and routines, and always felt a little restricted whenever she lived with any of her children. So, she preferred to live separately, in her own house, in the same city. As her age progressed, and she was unable to take care of herself, she lived with her sons and daughters, before passing away at her middle son’s house.
For everyone on the outside, it seemed very weird that this old woman was being shuttled from child to child, and I know for a fact that my father and mother especially, as the eldest son and daughter-in-law were severely judged for this. No one witnessed the sincerity with which they took care of her while she was with them – to them it didn’t matter. In their minds, they had let her live alone till she became too sick, and even then did not take care of her ‘completely’, enough to brand them as ‘bad’.
Similarly, my maternal grandparents also live alone, because my uncle has a transferable job, and he keeps moving cities every few years. My grandfather especially, is very particular about his daily life, which includes being in touch with his friends locally and visiting the local temples every day. Even when he was in my mother’s place recovering after a hospitalisation, he kept asking when he could go home.
Like many elders, my grandparents prefer ‘ageing in place’. My mother who has a more stable presence near them provides the support and resources needed to make this choice comfortable for them, and my uncle too, whenever he has a local posting.
Increasingly, older people, after a lifetime of caring for children, want the space and time to live their lives without having to adjust to the routines of others. They want the freedom and independence to explore their own hobbies and other activities. The elderly are also becoming more adept at using new technology and prefer to maintain ‘intimacy at a distance’ with their children via video calls etc, and occasional visits.
To force the elderly to move to unfamiliar places, and give up the things that matter to them, or to force children to give up on their own lives to care for their parents, are both unfair and impractical. It leads to greater stress and unpleasantness for everyone involved.
In such cases, it is actually far better to ensure that aged parents have the resources and help they need to stay alone.
In fact, living with children can actually be hell for many elderly.
A study conducted across 12 Indian cities a few years ago, threw up some truly chilling data about elder abuse in India. As per the report, “Four in 10 old people testify to verbal abuse, three to neglect, and a third to disrespect. One in five recount enduring such abuse almost daily, a third around once a week, and a fifth every month. Six in 10 report the daughter-in-law and an almost equal number the son as the major sources of abuse against them.”
As opposed to this, only 7% of daughters are abusive of their parents.
Abuse like this has actually caused those who can afford it, to move out and live separately from their children. Those who can’t, suffer in silence.
Data like this certainly shatters the common belief that happy families live together, or that parents who live with their children are perfectly happy.
Much of the narrative around older people living alone revolves around what they can’t do. There are urban legends about dead bodies of elderly people being found days after their demise, because they had no one to take care of them.
The truth is that elderly people living alone are usually more sociable and active, and more likely to stay in touch with neighbours and friends who can assist in an emergency.
The assumption that elderly people cannot take care of themselves, and that they always need help is just patronising and infantilising. It is ageism, pure and simple.
However, don’t people need company while grieving? Especially elders?
One can never say for sure. Grief is a complicated emotion, and everyone deals with it differently. For some, the presence of other people is a relief. For others, it is an added stress. Some people just need time to process their feelings in solitude before they are ready to share them with others, including near and dear ones.
It is a personal choice how someone chooses to deal with bereavement, and it is not up to outsiders to comment about how it ‘should be’ handled.
The point of this article is not to champion leaving elders to live alone, or to criticise the Indian system of living with parents. Living with family does have significant benefits, and living alone can be detrimental to the mental and physical health of the elderly. Loneliness, in particular, is a big problem, and can act as a booster for other diseases.
However, as Dr. Soumya Hegde, a geriatric psychiatrist with a practice in Bangalore, points out, “Loneliness need not stem from being alone or living alone. People may be living alone but be perfectly content if they have a structure to their day and activities that keep them busy. “On the other hand you may be in a family or in the midst of people and still feel alone. The loneliness may stem from feeling that no one loves you and you have no one to love either.”
The point is also to emphasise that it is a patriarchal notion sons should always take care of their parents only by living with them, and that daughters are ‘paraya dhan’ anyway, so it does not matter that they play no role in the caring. Caring for your parents could also be by giving them their independence and ensuring that they are healthy and happy, living their lives the way they finally can.
We can hardly ever know from the outside, what the dynamics of a particular family are. Instead of passing judgements, what we can do is be more encouraging of daughters who want to take care of their parents and offer empathy and support to the elderly, whether or not they live alone.
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