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UNVEILING SHADOWS: EXPLORING ELDER ABUSE, RIGHTS AND LEGAL PROTECTION OF THE ELDERLY IN INDIA

INTRODUCTION

Medical science and technology have made brilliant progress in our time, even allowing dreams of immortality. Elderly people are living longer years but not with dignity, they are suffering abuse physically, mentally, sexually, and financially. While ageist jokes appear as harmless fun, our silence to this widespread attitude is enforcing patterns of abuse. WHO defines 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/senior person.

Elderly abuse is often subtle and chronic making it hard to identify as a third party. But sometimes it is evident through bruises, lack of personal hygiene, refusal to engage socially, unexplained weight loss, and a general trend of self-isolation. The problem is exacerbated by the vulnerability of this group and the truth that the offenders are often relatives or caregivers. The COVID-19 lockdowns have increased both cases of familial abuse as well as institutional abuse.

Sadly, most senior citizens are unaware of relevant legislation, remedies, and legal frameworks, making it harder to seek help. The above-mentioned abuse results in overdosing with pills, mental health conditions, and in extreme cases suicide. In the fall of 2022, individuals aged 65 and above comprised nearly 17% of all suicide cases in the United States, surpassing their population representation of 12%.[1] Elderly suicide lacks data and attention in India.

RISING TREND OF ELDERLY ABUSE AND NEGLECT

Elderly abuse has become a menace worldwide and is witnessed in diverse ethnic groups and countries. According to a comprehensive analysis conducted in 2017, which examined 52 studies from 28 countries across different regions, it was estimated that approximately 15.7% of individuals aged 60 and above experienced various forms of abuse within the previous year. [2]Also noteworthy, is that while abuse happened in stereotypical community settings, it also took place in healthcare institutions and long-term care facilities.

Historically, Indians are known for peaceful familial cohabitation but the reality is far from it. According to the 2016 report by the International Network for Prevention of Elder Abuse (INPEA), India emerged as the top Asian country concerning the prevalence of elder abuse.[3]

LASI, the longitudinal ageing survey of India, reports that at least 5 per cent of India’s ageing population reported ill-treatment in 2020.[4]  Bihar recorded the highest number of the elderly population that is 12%, who reported mistreatment.[5] As reported, the abuse has ranged from emotional and verbal abuse, and misuse of personal financial assets to physical violence such as hitting and pushing.

AN OVERVIEW OF THE ELDERLY PROTECTION LAWS IN INDIA

Protection under the Constitution

The well-being of the elderly is guaranteed through Article 41 of the Indian constitution, The state is required to ensure adequate provision for guaranteeing the right to public assistance for elderly individuals taking into consideration its economic capacity and progress.[6] Various programs and welfare schemes like pensions, tax relief, travel concessions, and medical benefits are rolled out by the Union and the State. But the implementation of the same has been non-uniform throughout the country.

The act titled ‘The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007’ was enacted as a result of the efforts made by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to address the needs of older adults and promote their well-being. The Act aims to enhance provisions that ensure the support and well-being of parents and senior citizens, as mandated and acknowledged by the Constitution, while also addressing related matters and incidental aspects.[7] The act extends a liability to provide maintenance to any senior individual including a parent, who is incapable of maintaining themselves through their financial assets, on the said individual’s children or grandchildren and if they are childless on the legal heir who has inherited the said person’s property or is set to inherit the property.[8] The term maintenance has been defined by the Act as, inclusive of providing nutrition, garments, shelter, and medical care.[9]

If children or relatives failed to pay the due amount wholly or partly for a month, the appropriate legal authority can issue a warrant to extract the amount in the due manner provided and can sentence the person for up to a month in prison or until the payment is made, if the said warrant fails.[10]

We find elderly protection laws in personal laws too. For people following the Hindu faith, we have the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, of 1956 which enables parents to claim maintenance from their biological or adopted child, regardless of the child’s gender.[11] For people following the Islamic faith, financially incapable parents can claim maintenance from their child, regardless of their gender, if the child is capable of providing so.  No such laws are available for people following the Christian or Parsi faith. 

The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 also establishes guidelines concerning financial support for parents (as well as spouses and children). It stipulates that if an individual with adequate resources fails or declines to provide for their parents who are incapable of self-sustenance, the magistrate can, upon substantiating neglect, direct the said individual to pay a monthly maintenance allowance determined by the magistrate. The amount is determined based on the magistrate’s discretion.[12]

THE INTERNATIONAL PERSPECTIVE OF ELDERLY RIGHTS

Since the 2000s, there have been several studies throughout the world to analyze the complex associations between inter-generational relationships, ageing, mental health, and treatment of marginalized groups. The growing interest has established the field in its own right and gained attention from the global community.

In December 2011, the United Nations General Assembly recognized 15 June as an official observance, as per the suggestion made by the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (INPEA), through the adoption of UN resolution 66/127.

The United Nations Principles for Older Persons, accepted by the General Assembly in 1991, appreciate the growing number of healthy older people who can actively contribute to societal progress and recognize their right to do so. It encourages governments around the world to incorporate 10 principles regarding Independence, Participation, Care, Self-fulfilment, and Dignity. Principle 17 condenses the entire idea through, ‘Older persons should be able to live in dignity and security and be free of exploitation and physical or mental abuse’.[13]

Numerous member states at the General Assembly have voiced the requirement for normative standards that are universally applicable to safeguard the elderly from abuse, neglect, and harm. These standards would also serve as guidelines for reporting, ensuring accountability, and establishing mechanisms for redress.[14]

STRATEGIES FOR COMBATING ELDERLY ABUSE

  • Generating data and promoting awareness throughout the community.
  • Strategizing money-management plans for the elderly.’
  • Increasing literacy programs for the rural ageing population.
  • Making free mental health services and resources available to the elderly.
  • Combatting ageism in society and inculcating moral responsibilities among the youth.
  • Devising better implementation of legal frameworks.
  • Developing forums for complaints and resolving issues

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, there is not a lack of explicit legal structures for the protection of the elderly per se but a severe lack of awareness about it. Also, most senior citizens are exploited through relationships of trust, which itself imply a power imbalance. We need to come up with community solutions and realize individually that remaining silent or feigning ignorance only escalates situations against the helpless. There is also a need for extensive research on how this abuse affects the elderly of different economic, social, and ethnic backgrounds in India.

Author(s) Name: Subhalaxmi Mukherjee (Gujarat National Law University, Silvassa)

Reference(s):

[1] Josh Sanitato, ‘What to know about older adults and suicide risk’(Cleveland Clinic, 4 April 2023)

[2] Yon Y, Mikton CR, Gassoumis ZD, Wilber KH, ‘Elder abuse prevalence in community settings: a systematic review and meta-analysis’. (Lancet Glob Health, 5 February 2017) <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28104184> accessed 2 July 2023

[3] Dr Debanjan Banerjee, ‘The silent evil of elder abuse in India’, (The New Indian Express, 22nd June 2020) 

[4] Dipak Pihal, Jhumki Kundu, ‘Elderly Abuse, a growing concern in India’ (DowntoEarth, 16 February 2021)

[5] Ibid

[6] Constitution of India 1950, art 41

[7] The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] S.20, Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956

[12] S.125, Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973

[13] United Nations Principles for Older Persons, 1991

[14] 2020 World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, Dept. of Economic and Social Welfare, UN