With life expectancy increasing steadily, more and more people are living longer. And with this has come a number of new risks and challenges.
Being harassed by their children for their deposits and property; Their signatures being faked to take loans against the properties. Children refusing to take elderly parents to the doctor for treatment, not getting their food or medication on time, rude language and behavior, threats to throw them out on the streets if they complain. How does law help in this case?
Senior citizens in the country can avoid ill-treatment or abuse at the hands of their family under the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens. This law aims to prevent elder abuse by making it a legal obligation of children to provide maintenance to their parents.
Under the Act, parents and grandparents who are unable to maintain themselves from their own incomes can demand maintenance from their children. The Act also provides for 'Childless Senior Citizens,' who are unable to maintain themselves from their own income and can demand maintenance from their relatives. Maintenance in this case includes provision for food, clothing, residence, medical attendance and treatment.
Unfortunately, awareness of the Act is extremely low among senior citizens in India, according to my experience as a doctor and living in our society. Their awareness of the existence and the provisions of the Maintenance Act is very low; only 14 % of abuse victims even know the law exists.
What is abuse?
The World Health Organization 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 person." According to WHO, elder abuse can take various forms such as physical, psychological emotional, sexual and financial abuse. It can also be the result of intentional or unintentional neglect.
Most elderly associate elder abuse with disrespect, verbal abuse and neglect. Verbal abuse ranked the highest, followed by neglect and disrespect. Most cities across India have help lines run by the police to help elders, often in association with elder care NGOs. but none exists in Jammu & Kashmir. However, while many are aware of laws protecting elderly citizens, very few people approach lawyers, fearing social stigma and isolation.
The simple fact that many elders safeguard their children often leads to lesser cases being reported or resolved. Many elders feel it is their fate that they are being harassed by their own children and would rather tolerate it painfully than bring them to book. The other factor that leads to elders being easy targets for abuse is isolation. Many elders stay alone, with children away in other cities, and are easy targets.
There are also cases where the elderly have been forced by their children to gift away the property to their children. Under the Maintenance Act, the tribunals give the option to challenge the gift deed if the elder was forced or was not of sound mind but the process remains a laborious and difficult one.
Measures to prevent abuse
Many people also think that living in large joint families can help prevent abuse.
Why are cases of abuse on the rise? According to those who work in the area, increased life spans of the population and a change in traditional family values have led to cases of abuse, exploitation and desertion of older persons. Elders suffer physical, emotional, and financial abuse in silence as ill-treatment and abuse occurs mostly within the family.
Elder abuse is still a hidden problem. While legal sanctions are necessary, there is also need to sensitize people about this issue. Community can play a very important role in both preventing the abuse as well as empowering the elders to fight back against such violation of their basic human rights.
How does the Act help?
Seniors can apply to a maintenance tribunal under Section 4 giving names, full details and addresses of the persons from whom they are demanding maintenance. If the senior citizen is incapable of making an application on their own, any other person or registered voluntary organization authorized by him/her can make the application. Upon receipt of the application, the maintenance tribunal would issue notices to the children, conduct hearings, take evidence and order maintenance. Maintenance tribunal may also refer the case for reconciliation or pass interim orders for maintenance.