31 March - 6 April 2017 #852

Old is gold

Krishna Murari Gautam
After my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and while caring for him, my eyes were opened to the plight of the elderly in Nepal. If this was how difficult it was for me to care for my father, what of those families that don’t have the resources? I realised that getting old in Nepal is a curse not just for this generation of older people, but for upcoming generations as well.

We pride ourselves in the respect we accord senior citizens: there is a premium in our culture for attending to older relatives. But the family safety net is collapsing as men migrate and joint families disintegrate. There are no policies and laws to protect older people in our society.

In 2009 after my father passed, I quit my job and opened a geriatric centre. It didn’t work because families that consigned their elderly to an old-age home were ostracised because of the social stigma of abandoning their parents. Others would come to the centre and demand to be cared for free. This notion that old-age homes should be run like charities stems from the government’s neglect of senior citizens and the homes being synonymous with helplessness and poverty.  

As Nepal’s population ages, we need more knowledge and understanding of the elderly and their health care needs, through education and advocacy about care. This is much more important than opening unsustainable and poorly-staffed old people’s homes.

The problem of the elderly in Nepal is getting more serious by the day because of the demographic transition. Last year alone, 126 bodies were found abandoned all over the country: most of them were of unclaimed elderly people.   

The laws discriminate against senior citizens. Older people cannot sell their land without the consent of their children, they are not entitled to their own property if their sons banish them from home.

We have government programs for children, women and the disabled but not for the elderly. People talk about women’s rights as if women above 60 aren’t women anymore. Let us examine the way we treat elderly members of our own families. Do we really listen to them?  Do we understand their isolation? Their need for company and communication? Or do we dismiss them as ‘senile’?

Kathmandu’s Newars have the guthi, which takes care of a community’s needs from birth to death, and the unique practice of jankhu that could be preserved and promoted to celebrate and value elders. Older people are people, too. They have human rights and the need to be treated with dignity like everyone else.

Krishna Murari Gautam is a social scientist and founder of Ageing Nepal, ageingnepal.org

Read also:

‘Reaping the demographic dividend’, Editorial

‘A much older tomorrow’, Sonia Awale

Democracy and demographic shift, Sarthak Mani Sharma

Pitfalls of old age, Buddha Basnyat

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