Yesterday I came across a video on social media where a daughter in law was seen thrashing a fragile older woman in a village in Haryana. We all have heard similar stories of ill-treatment and neglect by the family members or caregivers. The cruelty towards them is widespread but rarely does the issue comes out in the public domain.
No one wants an older woman!
Older women suffer a double whammy- of old age and of being a woman.
Along with battling deteriorating health, dementia, dwindling finances, and lack of emotional support, the cruelty and utter neglect are shown towards them.
Rapid urbanization, increase in life expectancy due to better medical treatments, and erosion of family values are often cited reasons for lack of care of the elderly. But this isn’t entirely true, in my opinion
Older people across centuries and cultures have been treated as an enormous unwanted economic burden.
I came across a remarkable folktale, ‘Two Old Women: An Alaskan Legend of Betrayal, Courage, and Survival’ written by Velma Wallis.
It was an extraordinary story of courage and self-transformation of two older women who were abandoned without food and support by their tribe in harsh and cold winter. As the food becomes scarce in dark, freezing winters, there is a constant struggle amongst the tribes for warmth and security.
It starts with the head of the Gwich’in tribe deciding to leave behind two older women when the food became scarce and winter getting brutal. Fearing cannibalism which people resort to under extreme duress, even the family members didn’t come forward to protect and fight for the two. It was better to leave those two old souls behind to meet their dark fate alone rather than carrying them along.
With heavy heart, Ch’idzigyaak and Sa’ bid farewell to their closed ones and the tribe marched ahead looking for food to survive in the extreme weather. The two women were heartbroken, depressed and felt betrayed by their blood. It wasn’t that leaving behind old in the difficult times was unknown, but it was happening for the first time in this group.
The two women decided to conquer fate with wisdom and resilience rather than giving up in such adverse circumstances. They utilized whatever skill they had, such as fishing, sewing, hunting, and building to survive the horrendous winter. They met their fate eye to eye and helped their starved and impoverished tribe members when they had failed to find food. They proved that age is just a number, and if there is will, enough can be done with depleting resources and weak physical strength.
I love reading folklores, especially when they have a more profound message. Sometimes the message is buried deep, but here the message of sisterhood, bonding, self-reliance, dignity, and hard work was simple and beautifully depicted.
Thurston, Edgar in his book, ‘Omens and Superstitions of Southern India’ writes about an age-old custom in Travancore where burial jars were made to bury alive the old women who refused to die.
He also mentions an incident in Bellary district in the 1900s, where an older woman complained to the police that a woman is living in her neighborhood, had been throwing stones into her house. The neighboring woman admitted that she had done so because she was advised that the remedy for an illness, from which she was suffering, was to throw stones at an older woman, and extract some blood from her body.
One can find numerous saying and anecdotes regarding old age and lack of care.
In one of the Irish folktales, a crow was carrying his chicks across the sea for safety. He asked them one by one, ” Who will carry me when I get old?
“I will,” answered the first chick, and the crow dropped him into the sea.
He asked the same question to the second and the third one. Both answered the same, “I will carry you.” He dropped both of them in the sea. He said all three of them lied as no one would take care of him when he gets old.
When he asked the last chick the same question, he said, “Father, you have to fly by yourself because I will have my own family to take care for.” He was the only one who told the truth, so the crow flew him across the sea.
Being on our own is the harsh reality as the age progresses, and we all have to prepare ourselves for the same.