One of the greatest joys of my childhood was growing up in a joint family full of elders, cousins and siblings. With a house full of people, one often forgot about sorrows and anxieties. There would always be someone to share your burden, whether it was physical or emotional. This was the case with many of my counterparts. But with changing times, the family structure is also changing and joint families, which were the norm when I was a young boy, are decreasing in cities as well as villages.
In my opinion, the biggest impact of this changing family structure has been on the elderly. As families become nuclear, elders are forced to live on their own, often away from their children and grandchildren who are in distant places for work/study. There is an increasing level of loneliness among the elderly along with the increased burden of having to take care of themselves. Multiple psychological studies have also found a correlation between loneliness among the elderly and instances of anxiety, depression and other functional disorders. Family and living conditions have a significant impact on the well-being of the elderly.
If it was not evident before, the Covid-19 pandemic has bluntly brought about the stark realities of the disadvantaged position of the lonely elderly in India today. As India reels from the second wave of the pandemic, more and more elderly people find themselves living alone and having to face the situation alone. Older people living alone cannot go about their lives as before due to the greater risk the virus poses to this group. They have to rely on the goodwill of neighbours, the local community or retail providers to bring them essential supplies. If not, they have to risk getting infected and go out to procure supplies and regular medicines. The need to have family members around during these times is faced acutely by the elderly as a result.
Besides catering to the material needs of elderly citizens, family provides an unparalleled emotional support system. It is medically proven that the emotional state of a person has a huge impact on immunity levels. In these troubling times, we should offer the elderly in our lives the care and affection that they deserve. The caring hands of grandchildren along with the warmth of a household are going to be an immunity booster for them to tide over this crisis.
The other side of this coin is that during the pandemic, parents’ concern for children has also expanded manifold. They are not only about physical health and protection from the virus, but also about emotional and mental health. Most importantly, especially in nuclear families, children long for their grandparents for their emotional and cultural fulfilment. This need has become more pronounced during the pandemic when loneliness is proving detrimental to the mental health of young children. Children have been removed from school, with no social and experiential learning. The channels to share one’s anxieties have largely been closed or are at best restricted to virtual mediums. The experienced and comforting hands of grandparents can provide much-needed soothing and healing for these young souls. They are a treasure house of wisdom and it is rightly said that when they smile, the lines in their faces become epic narratives that trace the stories of generations that no book can replace.
We, as a society, have a deep-rooted culture of familial bonding and support. It is so deeply ingrained in our culture that we firmly believe that the entire World is One Family (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam). It has never been truer than during the Covid-19 outbreak. In the long evolutionary history of mankind, there have been many momentous occasions but never has the world felt so united in its misery and struggle as during this great human tragedy. A society that believes so strongly in familial attachment ought to stand by its elderly when they are the most vulnerable.
The central government has taken proactive steps to protect our elderly population by getting them vaccinated at the earliest as a priority group. As per estimates, the number of senior citizens is around 14 crore and despite the government’s best efforts many of them are still to be vaccinated. A major reason is apprehension regarding the safety of vaccines, which has now been decisively settled in favour of getting the jab. Even global authorities, including renowned immunologist Anthony Fauci, have commended the Indian vaccine, which has been found to neutralise as many as 617 variants of Covid-19.
As India progresses at a rapid pace in conducting the world’s largest immunisation programme, it is my humble request that families should get everyone, especially elders, vaccinated at the earliest. Let us come forward to extend helping hands to our elderly relatives and neighbours when they need us the most. On this international day of families, let us pledge to give our elderly a life of dignity, a life of love, a life of care and most importantly a life that they fully deserve.
The writer is Minister of State for Jal Shakti and Social Justice & Empowerment