Nearly 450 senior citizens call the elder helpline (1090) in Bengaluru every year to report abuse from family members. The data accessed from the helpline, jointly set up by the Bengaluru City Police and the NGO Nightingales Medical Trust (NMT) in 2002, shows that property-related issues are one of the most common reasons for abuse.
The number of complaints have been rising every year, says Premkumar Raja, NMT co-founder. The helpline received 430 complaints in 2021-21 and 447 in 2021-22. This year, from April till September alone, 312 complaints have been reported.
Verbal abuse is most common, followed by mental abuse. For example, in 2020-21, of the 430 complaints, 320 involved verbal abuse. The cases of physical abuse are relatively low, but 30-40 complaints are registered every year. “The elderly person may be pushed or squeezed tightly to hurt them. There was even a case of an elderly woman singed with cigarettes,” says an official at the helpline.
She says the police are involved in about 10% of complaints – mostly cases of physical abuse and severe verbal abuse. Of all complaints, around 60% get resolved with counselling, she adds.
“Property-related cases are difficult for us to resolve beyond a point. The opposite party may file a court case which will drag for years, and there will be no way out for the senior citizen,” says the official. The helpline closes unresolved cases if the parties want to discontinue counselling after multiple rounds, or if the complainant doesn’t give proper details of the opposite party.
In fact, senior citizens often file verbal instead of written complaints. In 2020-21, 234 complaints were given verbally whereas only 196 were written complaints. “In the case of many verbal complaints, the senior citizen just wants to talk about their issues to a third party. In our society, there is a lot of stigma attached to dysfunctional family relations, so they don’t have an avenue to talk about the issue,” says the official.
Other than property matters, top reasons for abuse include lack of adjustment, lack of care, financial issues/not providing maintenance to parents. Data shows that the sons are the most common abusers, followed by daughters-in-law and daughters.
“Chronic abuse causes the person to withdraw, suffer from depression, lose weight and have trouble sleeping. Due to inadequate care, patients with diseases like arthritis and Parkinsons may suffer falls. If the family does not give appropriate food or medication, the patient may also become bed-ridden,” says Dr Ananya Das, Consultant – Geriatric Medicine, Manipal Hospitals.
“We see elderly patients becoming emaciated or bed-ridden within a brief period without any obvious reason, which could be due to abuse or neglect.”
Dr P T Sivakumar, head of geriatric psychiatry at Nimhans, says that the complaints coming to the helpline are only the tip of the iceberg. Many elders don’t complain as they lack awareness that they are being abused or don’t have the resources to seek help. Elderly patients with mental or neurological issues, including dementia, are also commonly abused by their family in an attempt to control their behaviour, he says.
“In addition to crisis intervention through counselling, a volunteer-driven system with long-term follow-up is needed in cases of elder abuse. The person could be moved to a safer, better environment if possible,” he says.