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Dr Harshbir Rana answers your queries on personal and social issues related to ageing, elder care and intergenerational relationships

 

Q. I live in a housing society in Mumbai. I recently came to know that one of our elderly neighbours has been physically harming his octogenarian sister, who is bedridden. Though I can empathise with the lady, I am not able to help her because I am not a personal witness to this abuse. In fact, my domestic help, who also works there, has informed me about this. Also, I feel I shouldn’t be crossing my limits and intruding into my neighbour’s personal space. How can I help her?

 
A. Elder abuse is real and is recognised as a major problem faced by elders today. Before delving into this matter, let us first define abuse. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has defined elder abuse as “a single or repeated act or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress to an older person”.

Elders can be abused in various ways. Physical abuse includes hitting, pushing or purposely injuring an elderly individual. Emotional abuse includes ignoring, verbally abusing, making fun of or isolating the individual. Neglect would be indifference to the needs of the aged—not feeding them, not taking care of their medical needs or not providing adequate shelter. Financial abuse could be making unauthorised financial withdrawals from their bank accounts or changing the Will made by them. Sexual abuse would be non-consensual sexual contact of any type.

Elder abuse is most often inflicted by family members and caretakers. It is difficult to identify various forms of abuse as it occurs mostly within the four walls of the home. As the abuser is a known person, the crime is very often not reported. A silver woman once told me: “If my son is misbehaving with me, it must be my training. Telling outsiders about it will just make them gossip about our family.” Sometimes the aged are isolated and won’t have anyone to report to; there is also the fear of further abuse. Research shows that the abuser often suffers from mental health issues or substance abuse problems.

In your case, it is obvious that your domestic help has seen some form of physical abuse and, being concerned, she has told you about it. (Beware: Ensure the domestic help doesn’t have a hidden/personal agenda in reporting her neighbour’s violent behaviour to you.) Depending on the gravity of abuse, you can choose from the following options:

  • You can try to visit your neighbour on the pretext of striking up a conversation with the elderly woman. Look out for any signs of physical or emotional abuse and try to ascertain if she needs any help or intervention.
  • If the nature of abuse is of bad behaviour, you can plan an intervention with a few neighbours from your housing society. Gather them together, explain the situation and plan how to handle this crisis. Maybe someone will know the abused and could find out what was happening. Community pressure works very well in such circumstances.
  • As you live in a housing society, you can take your domestic help to the person in charge of the housing society. She can explain what she saw and they can verify whether she has, in fact, seen the abuse. Also living in the same building, the person in charge can gather information from other residents and service providers and, if satisfied, take appropriate action.
  • Elder abuse does find redress under the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act 2007; although not knowing the full facts, I can’t say for sure if it applies in this case. You can call the Mumbai Senior Citizen Helpline (1298) and report the incident.
  • If abuse is of a criminal nature, it will be dealt under the Indian Penal Code, 1860. You can take your domestic help to the police station and get an FIR registered against the abuser. The Mumbai Police also runs a special service called Elderline where elders can dial 1090 and complain of any abuse.

Q. My parents are in their 60s. They have both movable and immovable property, accumulated over the years through sheer hard work. Both my sister and I are really proud of them. We are married and living with our families. But I am not sure if my parents have thought about a Will yet. Though I have tried to broach the topic quite a few times, they didn’t seem to take me seriously. If my parents don’t leave behind a Will, I’m afraid it may create a misunderstanding between me and my sister after their lifetime. How do I go about convincing my parents about the significance of leaving behind a Will?

 
A. The dilemma you face is a common one, with children wanting clarity on their inheritance and parents not wanting to commit by making a Will. First, let us understand what a Will is. According to Oxford English Dictionary, “a Will is a legal document containing instructions as to what should be done with one’s money and property after death.” When a person makes a Will, after their death, their property is given to their heirs in accordance with their wishes. This is called a Testamentary Succession. It is always better to have a registered Will. When there is no Will, the law governing the deceased steps in and determines how the estate will devolve. Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists are governed by the Hindu Succession Act; Muslims by the Muslim Law of Succession; Christians and Parsis by the Indian Succession Act, 1925.

There are various reasons why people are unable to pen down their Will:

  • The first and foremost is that the Will is seen as an acknowledgement of the person’s deepest fear: Death. The certainty of life is that it will end in death. This is a fact many are unable to face and asking them to make a Will is forcing them to accept this harsh reality. Many a time, I have heard silvers saying, “I am not dying… why do I need a Will?”
  • Many elders are not keen to disclose information about their property and financial resources for a number of reasons, such as security or fear of leaking personal information. Making a Will would mean giving out this information.
  • Many silvers do not want to offend any family members; they believe this may not be possible if they make a Will. In such cases, they prefer not making a Will or just keep postponing it.
  • At times, the elderly don’t want to face a scenario where children fight among themselves for a bigger share. Many have told me, “They can fight for all they want after I am gone.”
  • Some silvers genuinely don’t know how to go about making a Will or understand the importance of making one.
  • Some silvers enjoy the power ‘the guessing game’ gives them over their children and relatives.

There are various ways to start a conversation with your parents:

  • As you have stated that you have a sister, the first step would be to have a frank discussion with her on this topic. If you both feel similarly, you can visit your parents together for a family meeting. Have a serious conversation on why you would like your parents to make a Will and the consequences of not making one. Listen carefully to your parents’ response and resolve their fears as well. Please understand that anger has no place in this conversation.
  • If you need to have this conversation alone with your parents for some reason, my suggestion is to do it promptly. There is no reason to stress about it and make it a bigger problem than it is. Call your parents and tell them you would like to have some time with them. Be honest and explain why you want them to make a Will. Explain the importance of their Will in your life and how not making one could spoil your relationship with your sister in the future. To make your point, you could cite incidences of your friends and relatives who are litigating in court. During this important conversation, please remember these are your parents and the discussion is about their property. Anger, force and threat cannot, I repeat cannot, be a part of this conversation.

I hope this information is helpful. Do write back and let me know how the conversation went.

Dr Rana is a New Delhi-based social gerontologist and Founder of Positive Aged. Email her with your queries at positiveaged@gmail.com or write to us at contact.us@harmonyindia.org. Visit www.positiveaged.com

Photo: 123RF.com
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
March 2018
  • vyasamoorthy

    I am prepared to send an email to the parents who are not willing to write a WILL, quoting all the reasons you have cited for being reluctant to make a WILL and ask them to tick whatever applies to them. That will be revelation and they will surely overcome their inhibitions and start preparing WILL.