By Dr. Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai/newsin.asia
An ageing population has been one of the major challenges in the health arena in recent decades. It increasingly finds expression these days in the way the elderly are abandoned. Globally, the population over 60 years of age is projected to increase from 10% in 2000 to 21% in 205. The statistics also connects with the rising number of stranded and abandoned elderly persons during the lockdown enforced to counter the COVID-19 pandemic.
A subject on which we need to introspect now has been thought about for a long time, across cultures around the globe.
A recent report from the leading Indian English daily, The Hindu (June 17, 2020) by Sanjana Ganesh, speaks of the high rate of abandonment of the elderly above 60 years of age during the present lockdown. The same report also mentions a rise in the number of calls per day from five or six in earlier times to ten or twelve during the lockdown- from various people reporting stranded and abandoned elderly people on the streets.
In India, as per the official website of the Kolkata Police: ‘There are approximately 81,00,000 senior citizens and nearly 30% of these senior citizens stay alone. Many Pan-Indian surveys have revealed that a sizeable chunk of this population faces serious concerns related to safety, security, health etc…’
Abandoned senior citizens are found in railway stations and religious gatherings. A 2013 report from the National Geographic highlighted the elderlies who were left behind at the Maha Kumbh Mela at Allahabad.
A recent discussion on abandonment during the pandemic lockdown brought up the Japanese term of ‘Ubasute’. ‘Ubasute’ means abandoning an elderly woman and ‘obasute’ or ‘oyasute’ means abandoning a parent. It is the rare, old and often critiqued mythical practice of “senicide” in Japan, wherein, an infirm or elderly relation is carried to a mountain or some other remote and desolate place and left to die of exposure. The Kodansha Illustrated Encyclopaedia from Japan explains ‘ubasute’ as the ‘subject of legend, but…does not seem ever to have been a common custom.’
The term ‘ubasuteyama’ found its place in a short story by Tatsumi Yoshiro in 1970, titled- ‘Tokyo no ubasuteyama’ (Abandon the old in Tokyo, 1970). This speaks of leaving old women in the mountains to die of exposure. The practice of ‘ubasute’ is explored at length in the Japanese novel The Ballad of Narayama (1956) by Shichiro Fukazawa. This novel was also the basis for three films. The story of the Ballad of Narayama speaks of an old woman, who sacrifices herself for the good of the village, but her son later returns and rescues her. By contrast, Tatsumi’s story is a critique of society. A young man moves his mother into a separate apartment, so he can be alone with his fiancée. Later he regrets his action and returns to his mother, but only to find that his mother had committed suicide.
‘Ubasute’ mirrors itself in the word ‘granny dumping’ (around the 1980s). It is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the abandonment of an elderly person in a public place such as a hospital or nursing home, especially by a relative” and is often seen reaching its peak before Christmas when families head off on holidays. Hospitals and care facilities in the US, Australia and New Zealand find it difficult to carry this extra burden.
Folklore across India have dealt with abandonment. A very popular story from The Jatakas is the one on ‘How an ungrateful son planned to murder his old father’. The story takes place during the reign of King Brahmadatta of Kasi. A family of four had a young son named Vasitthaka. He lived with his wife, a seven year-old son and an old father. One day, the wife and Vasitthaka planned to leave the grandfather in the forest. The child overheard this and followed Vasitthaka and the grandfather the next morning to the forest. Upon reaching the forest, as Vasitthaka started to dig a pit for the grandfather, the son also started to dig another pit alongside. When Vasitthaka enquired, he replied that he too will bury him when he is old following the family custom. Shocked by this Vasitthaka realised his mistake and replied:
“Thou art no heartless ingrate, son, I see,
But kindly hearted, O my son to me.
‘Twas in obedience to thy mother’s word
I thought to do this horrid deed abhorred.”
And all the three returned home. The mother was soon taught a lesson and she too, realised her mistake. The grandfather lived his remaining days without a worry in Vasitthaka’s house.
There is a very similar folktale in the Philippines which is about a poor family of three living near a forest. The grandfather used to be a soldier in the King’s army and often narrated stories from his youth. As the son wanted to do away with the grandfather, he left him in the forest tied to a tree. While returning home, he saw his young son preparing a rope to tie him. The father realised his mistake and brought the grandfather back from the forest.
Another narrative from the Philippines is about a family of four, which had a grandfather of eighty and a grandson of ten. The grandfather was to be left at a farm with just a blanket. The young grandson put a stop to this by cutting the blanket into two and informing the father that he is keeping the other half for his old age as he has to send him away at the farm too. The father realised his folly.
Many societies and religions often recommended the elderly to live away from their family by choice. Those who could afford it, would live away, many others would retire to temples or monasteries or head for the wilderness to live in a hut separately.
(The picture at the top shows elderly women abandoned at the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh State in North India)