Senior Years: All we want is dignity

Community seniors talk about emotional and financial abuse by loved ones, and their pursuit of dignity in the face of it all

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Bas,” Mr Das shrugs. “Yahan ka culture hi aisa hai.” It’s the culture here.

“That’s right. It’s not as if our children don’t love us. Pyar toh hai, lekin…” Mrs Singh begins saying, but then trails off, as if shushed by an invisible hand.

Ms Cotter has a simple enough explanation that she seemed convinced with: “It is the generation gap.”

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“Yes, exactly. Why choose to be dependent on your children when you can be independent?” Mr Singh asks, with not a hint of bitterness. “In fact, I simply love the freedom of living independently. I can sleep in if I want to,” he says, clearly relishing the luxury of waking up at 8.00am when he wants to.

“Parents!” I think to myself, even as I smile and nod. “Classic parents.”

I am at a senior citizens group where I have been allowed to be part interviewer, part fly-on-the-wall. The unpalatable, fraught topic: elder abuse.

It isn’t going to plan. I have been expecting to hear hard-hitting, angry, tear-filled indictments of their children, but instead, the group of seniors is proffering explanations (excuses?); waving away suggestions of neglect; dancing delicately around the subject; and blaming the circumstances, the changing times, today’s busy lifestyle – everything but their kids. “Yep,” I think, trying to not shake my head ‘out loud’. “Classic parents.”

The close-to-dozen seniors are all my parents’ age, some of them even older. Their children – the ones they are talking about, the ones they are giving all these explanations for, the ones they are refusing to chide even gently behind their back – and I are the same generation. Would my parents, whom I had said goodbye to (left behind?) in India when I migrated to Australia just over a year ago, also be having similar conversations with their friends, I wonder. Do they feel I have abandoned them, or have they convinced themselves that love does mean letting go? What would happen 20, 25, 30 years later, when my daughter grows up, I think, with more than a little dread.

Mrs Singh, with the zen and liberating detachment that can only come when you are in your eighties, jolts me back to the conversation. “If there is no expectation, there is no abuse,” she says. It’s a quotable-quote-worthy line, delivered with devastating simplicity.

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Is she being simplistic? Is she in denial? I don’t know. But with that piece of distilled wisdom, she has demolished the very definition of elder abuse, which the World Health Organisation defines 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” (emphasis added). But, if Mrs Singh and others of her ilk would like to think that they have no expectation, then, by their logic, there would be no abuse. See? Devastating.

I wish it were that simple. But, Mrs Singh, it’s not.

Profoundly under-reported

Elder abuse isn’t imaginary; it is painfully real. In fact, the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AFIS) calls it “fundamentally a human rights issue”, adding that it is likely that between 2% and 10% of older Australians experience elder abuse in any given year, with the prevalence of neglect possibly higher. But it is also one of the most under-reported crimes. Most elders prefer to suffer in silence rather than “exposing their children”, says Jay Raman, who is the vice-president of Sri Om Foundation, an independent organisation, and has worked with the elderly for several years.

An AIFS report commissioned by and funded by the Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department (available on https://aifs.gov.au/publications/elder-abuse/export) says: “The available evidence suggests that prevalence varies across abuse types, with psychological and financial abuse being the most common types of abuse reported, although one study suggests that neglect could be as high as 20% among women in the older age group (Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health [ALSWH], 2014). Older women are significantly more likely to be victims than older men, and most abuse is intergenerational (i.e. involving abuse of parents by adult children), with sons being perpetrators to a greater extent than daughters.”

“In New South Wales, two years of call data to the NSW Elder Abuse hotline (NSW Elder Abuse Helpline and Resource Unit, 2015) reveals that women were most commonly reported to be the victims (71% women compared to 28% men), and the most common age group of concern in the calls was 75-84 year olds (33%). In 71% of calls, the perpetrators were family members, and the largest group of perpetrating relatives were adult children (26% sons and 21% daughters). Just over one in 10 (12%) of perpetrators were spouses. The most common abuse type reported in the calls was psychological abuse (57%), followed by financial abuse (46%), neglect (25%), physical abuse (17%) and sexual abuse (1%),” the report further says.

It also notes that among the ways in which financial abuse is carried out were misuse of powers of attorney, coerced changes to wills, unethical trading in title to property, and the coercion of people without capacity into signing documents in relation to assets that would result in financial gain for the perpetrator.

Elders in culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities such as Indians face additional challenges. “In CALD communities, the literature suggests that a number of factors can heighten vulnerability to abuse, including language difficulties for those whose primary language is not English, social dependence on family members for support, and the potential conflict caused by cross-generational expectations in relation to care,” says a 2009 study by Bagshaw et al.

The AIFS report also outlines the barriers for reporting of elder abuse. “[An] aged person may be reluctant to disclose abuse by someone on whom they depend for care, since disclosure may mean withdrawal of the care and potentially an unchosen change in living circumstances. Cognitive impairment may also mean that an older person is unable to disclose or is not believed when they do disclose. Shame, embarrassment, fear of negative repercussions and/or a belief that disclosure and/or reporting may result in no consequences or negative consequences may also be relevant.”

Sadly, the report adds that legal redress is often unattainable for practical reasons (assets are unrecoverable) or personal reasons (the older person decides that maintaining relationships is more important than pursuing justice).

What will people say?

Maintaining relationships or pursuing justice: it’s a choice no one should have to make. And yet, it is one that many elders – even those who have been abused – have to make.

They often take the ‘classic parent’ approach, may be grudgingly revealing their travails to a support group, but expressly asking them not to inform the police. After all, what sort of parent reports their own children to the police?

Srilata, coordinator of the seniors’ centre that I am visiting, tells me that the members confide in the centre staff only because they know that police will not be involved. “We try to either inform other government agencies or deal with the problem ourselves,” she says. The members also say that on occasions when something has to be reported to the police, they do so through their centre, rather than approaching the police as an individual because it adds a bit of weight to the issue.

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Raman tells me about a few abuse cases. In one case, a retired senior had been psychologically abused by a close family member and kept confined in the house for four to five days, without the house keys and with limited food, while the rest of the family went away on holidays for a long weekend. The lady confided to Raman, but asked him not to report the case to the police because ‘badnaami ho jaayegi’ (it will bring the family a bad name).

Raman reported the case anyway, but the police said that they would take action only if the situation aggravated.

Has Raman ever confronted the alleged abusers? “Yes, and they have told us not to interfere and teach them how to care for their parents. They are not very receptive,” says Raman.

Has anyone expressed remorse? “Yes, in one case.” He hints that even that may have had something to do with the fact that the abused parent started receiving a pension.

Raman’s organisation helps out seniors for all levels of abuse. “We also see some severe cases of abuse. If those abused are pensioners, we may try to look for accommodation for them, as we did in the case of the retired senior. (Sri Om seeks help from other retirement living agencies for accommodation). If they are not pensioners, we may have to look for foster accommodation, which is like random people taking care of these seniors. Eventually they go back to India. Initially they are upset but at the same time, they do not want to expose their children,” he says.

Raman says that the law is limited and that only certain cases can be classified as ‘domestic violence.’ “If it is passive, emotional abuse, it is very difficult to prove unless the seniors want to report the matter to the police and testify in court,” he says. And therein lies a cultural barrier.

For many elders, that all-powerful and quintessentially Indian reasoning to do anything undesirable – ‘log kya kahenge’ (what will people say?) – is a big factor to suffer in silence. “And it is the lack of this factor, the absence of relatives and acquaintances that gives many adult children a free hand to neglect their parents or even take financial advantage of them,” says Srilata.

She adds that culturally, Indians are quite tolerant. “What others might see as abuse, Indians might accept. Also, we tend to rationalise a lot of bad stuff to the will of God. For instance, even if elders might get something unexpected to eat, they tend to think ‘Oh, this is what God wanted’,” she says.

Skimming parents’ pension money seems to be the favourite form of financial abuse of many abusers. That money may go to pay mortgage on a property or make other payments, sometimes even day-to-day expenses. Somehow, this seems to be the lesser evil. “Here, children at least allow their parents to live under the same roof. Many Australians expect their parents to live separately,” says Mr Mendes.

Raman recalls cases of people who employ stratagems that are approaching stunning levels of psychological manipulation. “When their pensioner parents are within earshot, people will deliberately scold their young children – ‘no beta, you know that we cannot afford to do this’”. No prizes for guessing that the grandparents immediately cave in and offer their money. “They say to their grandkids, ‘What’s mine is yours,’” Raman says.

Not spending money even when elderly parents clearly need is also abuse. Raman remembers a case in which a retired government official and his wife were living in Australia on a bridging visa. “The lady fell sick but the son did not pay for the treatment. The parents had to return to India and the lady eventually passed away,” he says.

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Of course, these are exceptions rather than the norm. To be fair, most adult children do financially provide for their elderly parents, even those who live independently. However, many of these parents receive pension or are otherwise financially independent. What they really crave is something no amount of money can buy: time. Time from their children, that is.

Between their work commitments during weekdays; and household chores, groceries, the kids’ sports and get-togethers over the weekend, adult children often find that they have run out of time. There’s none left to spend with their parents. Then, before you know it, it’s Monday again.

Not spending sufficient time with elderly parents may, in extreme cases, constitute as neglect. But is it abuse?

No quality time

Many elders say that their children happily pay for their aged care, but can’t always find or make time to spend with them. All of Mr Das’ children live in Australia, but he stays alone – he prefers to calls it ‘independently’ – in Sydney. “More than financial support, we need moral support,” he says. “But the kids are all grown up now. They don’t need us parents much.” The heartbreak in his voice is, well, heartbreaking.

Mr Singh is much more pragmatic. “We need to change our expectations. Indians think that as part of our culture, it is our children’s duty to take care of their aging parents. But it was we who sent our kids here. They adopted Western thinking which places no burden on them to take care of their parents. In Australia, the definition of family is husband, wife and kids; not the extended family. Grown-ups do not expect their parents to take care of them. Old parents should not expect their grown-up children to take care of them either.”

But isn’t it inherently human to have expectations from everyone, and to base relationships on give-and-take? Mr Trivedi seems to think so. “It’s impossible to love unconditionally, except may be if you are a mother. If one says ‘You should be detached’, it is bullshit.”

But Mr and Mrs Singh are firmly in the ‘no expectations’ camp. And so, a year and a half ago, they started living independently from their son. “Is it good?” I ask them. Mr Singh replies, “Independence is happiness.”

Mr Trivedi disagrees. “What is so wrong in expecting your children to take care of you? Being respectful and kind to your parents is not a bad thing. Anyone’s first responsibility is towards their parents,” he says.

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Mr Singh argues. “I am over 80. What should I expect my son to do, sit by my side every day? He would rather speak to his children, his family,” he says, implying that “family” does not include elderly parents.

Yet, Mrs Singh’s daughter-in-law certainly thought of her as family. “When I first arrived in Australia 20 years ago, there weren’t as many Indians around as there are today. My daughter-in-law would take me to get-togethers with her friends,” she remembers.

Of course, most members recognise that they won’t be welcome to the get-togethers of their children or grandchildren. “It’s fine if we stop by and say hello. But after that, they might not be entirely comfortable in our presence,” Mr Singh says. Ms Cotter adds, “It is understandable. Even we would be comfortable among people of our age and interest. It is the same with them.”

Mrs Singh agrees. She says, “We like all good things about Australia – its discipline, its cleanliness and so on. We should also learn that here, kids are not expected to take care of their elderly parents.”

Mr Trivedi blames it on an increasingly individualistic society. “Many people even get their parents here for financial benefit. Not only do they save on childcare, they can even get some money if the parents get a pension,” he says.

Srilata, who is about my age and a representative of the ‘grown-up children’ generation during the discussion, perhaps feels pressed to provide an explanation. “Even when my husband and I migrated to Australia, it was hard for us to leave behind my mother-in-law back in India. But what could we do? We had our daughter and her education to take care of. Elders understand this and say, ‘Do not worry about us, look after yourself and your family first.’”

Mr Singh exclaims, “That’s right. In our kids’ hearts, there is no shortage of love for us. But it’s just that they do not want that responsibility. And it is our responsibility not to burden them,” he says.

Happy to be free

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Don’t for a moment think of them as worthy of pity. Many seniors in the group who no longer live with their children have embraced their independence rather than moping about loneliness and alienation. That’s because in the group that they are a part of, they have formed close friendships.

Back in India, Mrs Singh used to be a teacher. “I remember when I would enter the staff room, 25 smiling faces of my colleagues would welcome me. I get the same feeling when I come here every day,” she says.

For most members, the three or four hours at the centre are a welcome time away from a lonely home, from what Mr Trivedi describes as a ‘first-class jail’. “After our children have left for work and our grandchildren for school, what are we going to do at home, count its bricks?” he asks. “It becomes a first-class jail, nothing else. You have all the comforts and amenities, but you are confined to the house. It is good for us, physically and mentally, to get out of the house. If you sit at home doing nothing, you would go mental.”

At the centre, the members do some light yoga, occasionally have cultural activities, play rummy, have lunch, watch television and unwind. While I was there, someone pulled out their phone to read a message about a phishing scam. Two other members said they had received similar messages as well. “Friendship with a side of financial awareness,” I think to myself.

Mr Das adds, “The centre is more than a support system; it’s a family. The good thing is that we also have people coming in from Centrelink, Fair Trading, Dementia Society to speak to us about various issues.”

Birthdays and anniversaries are a big deal at the centre. “For our wedding anniversary, they made us exchange garlands. We had songs and dance and food, just a lot of fun,” Mrs Singh says. Adds Mr Trivedi, “Yes, we get to be kids again here.”

Raman says the social contact is essential for the members. “It is important for us to keep in touch with them, like it is for a doctor to keep in touch with a patient. It helps us get to know if they have any problems at home,” he says.

He adds that the organisation also sends the seniors to volunteer at some local community events. “It is not hard work, but simply an opportunity for them to step out of the house, so they don’t feel lonely or depressed,” he says.

However, for all the members’ positivity about being independent, they sometimes let slip stories that leave me a bit depressed. Mr Das tells me he has ancestral land back in India, and every time he goes back to his village, he gets the feeling that his brothers start thinking if he has come back to claim his share. “My nephews ask me if my ticket is one-way or return,” he laughs, seemingly making light of the issue.

Mr Singh says he and his wife too visit Delhi every year for two years and live with their younger son. “However, even if we stay for a few weeks more, we can sense a change in our daughter-in-law’s demeanour,” he says.

The couple loves Australia, its ‘loving and gentle people’, the weather and, of course, their friend circle. But would they expect their son, who lives here, to care for them during their last years?

They seem to have no such illusions. “When my father was on his last legs, I dropped everything I was doing to be with him and to take care of him until the end. But do I expect the same from my son?” he asks, and answers the question himself. “No.”

Mrs Singh is by his side. “You are happy if you don’t have expectations,” she reiterates. “If you have no expectations, there will be no abuse.”

[Names of all group members and coordinator have been changed to protect their identities]