On Duty and Compassion Towards the Elderly by Vibha Shetiya

At the outset let me state that this post is mostly a collection of musings, rather than having a definite thesis statement.

I’m currently in India. I had to think hard before coming here for many reasons as you can guess. I finally decided to take the risk especially since there’s no telling how long this situation is going to last. After all, I’ve canceled twice and my parents aren’t getting any younger.

My father is 89, mum 79. When you visit on a yearly basis, that which eludes the daily eye becomes quite obvious in terms of reminding one of parents’ mortality. Wrinkles, aches, pains that develop over months and years seem shocking to the interim visitor, and in recent years, I’ve always left with the hope that I get to see them again.

But this time was different. My parents seemed to have aged by decades since the last time I visited a year and a half ago. My dad had always seemed together despite his frailty and gradual loss of weight. But this time I could see he had changed. While he remembered me, and was still quite independent albeit full of pain because of his sciatica, it was shocking to see how forgetful he had become – he asks the same question over and over, he is much slower in getting up and sitting down, and he seems to sleep an awful lot. Mum too seemed bent over, although she never really had back issues. Of course, she’s still the same when it comes to the kitchen, her domain. She still is an amazing cook and hasn’t slowed down on that front, and hopefully will remain Kitchen Queen till the end. But she’s slower when it comes to walking and moving about in general.

All this got me thinking of old age. I don’t have children, and never wanted any because I always thought I was too messed up to have kids. I still feel the same although there are flashes of anger that accompany the idea that it didn’t have to be this way. I didn’t have to be messed up; it was something that could have been avoided. I didn’t choose depression and PTSD, which led me to thinking not having children would be the smarter choice. In any case, that’s a different topic.

I have worried about being all alone in my old age if my husband passes away before me. I always knew that having kids just to take care of you was a selfish reason to reproduce, but I’ll admit I’m scared of finding myself alone. But especially of late, on this trip, I’ve been looking around. There are plenty of people – couples or single – who have children but whose offspring don’t care about them. I’m really lucky I have a wonderful, responsible brother who takes very good care of our parents while I have the luxury of living an independent life abroad. But there are people who like my brother live in the same city as their parents but don’t even bother checking in on them. Then there are those who have moved abroad leaving their aged and sick parents to fend for themselves back home. I’m not judging anyone, but this does make me realize that simply having children doesn’t guarantee you won’t live a lonely life in your sunset years.

Something else I feel compelled to comment on especially given I’m from a “traditional” culture is the value of treating elders with respect as decreed by the shastras or religious treatises. This may lead one to think there is no parental abuse or neglect in India but having lived in America for over twenty years now, I have witnessed many loving American families that continue to care for their parents whether by visiting them often or making sure they are taken good care of in a home. This in a “selfish, independent” culture. 

My point is two-fold – one, traditional cultures may balk at keeping parents in old-age homes passing judgement on those who “abandon” them. Assisted living isn’t even a concept here. There are however joint families in India where children may house their parents but make them miserable by not just reminding them that they’re a burden, but also through verbal and physical abuse. Which brings me to reiterating my second point – just because you have kids does not guarantee you will not be lonely and sad in old-age.

What is more important: having the satisfaction – and arrogance – of doing your duty by simply housing parents while abusing, ignoring and insulting them, or by letting them live a life of dignity even if it means letting them live independently if they prefer that or moving them into assisted living if it were a choice?

Perhaps the thing that struck me most about how “even” Americans are family-oriented and caring was when my physician in Pittsburgh first asked me about my family in India. When I told her that my parents and brother lived in the city of Pune, the first thing she said was, “That’s really nice, you have your brother there, so you don’t have to keep worrying about how they are doing.”  

Of course, let me reiterate there are many people who lovingly take care of their parents in India just as there may be children who neglect and abuse the elderly in America. There is often truth to stereotyping, but yes, stereotypes can be also woefully biased and outright wrong. Both good and bad ones.

I would love to hear your thoughts on what you think duty towards the elderly really could mean, and if there is a Christian/ Jewish equivalent of Hinduism when it comes to taking care of parents (1)! The gendered dynamics around care-giving for our older generation, and the reality that more of this care generally falls on women, also makes this a feminist concern. That my brother takes an active role in caring for my parents is not just welcome, but he is a good son as per the shastras!

  1. https://www.sanskritimagazine.com/indian-religions/hinduism/caring-parents-best-service/


Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. Vibha has degrees in journalism and religion and a Ph.D in Asian Cultures and Languages. She is an instructor at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of New Mexico.

Categories: Aging, Family, Gender, General, Hinduism, Relationality, Relationships, Women and Community

Tags: ,

6 replies

  1. As an ‘elderly’ person (hate that word), I am 76, I would say that aging and slowing down are part of the process of the eventual letting go of life and we do adjust to it. Many are frightened by death dying and confronting frailty constellates those fears.

    As for having children – this is absolutely not the time to have them – imagine the world you are bringing a child into – for the child’s sake – and don’t for ANY reason.

    Some adult children care about their parents, some do not. Certainly my children are not interested in my life, so I continue on alone. But I know others who are devoted to their aging parents – so as you say, stereotyping is foolish.

    I was present for my father but not my mother (who did not want to see me) and certainly for my grandparents/ great aunts – I took care of one of the latter as she aged and I am ever so grateful that I did but wish I could have done more…. I didn’t do these things out of a sense of duty. I did them because I loved…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t have any children either and I have worried about being older with no one to advocate or care for me, but…as you so rightly point out, there are plenty of parents whose children live on the other side of the world, or live next door and have no interest in them!

    At least you and I can make plans in advance about where we might want to live or how to arrange our finances because we know from the start that it is our responsibility to do so.

    I’m a Christian, although not a traditional one and I took care of my father to the best of my ability because I knew it was right to do so. By the end, we had transformed our previously troubled relationship, so I’m glad I did.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow! What a great post! My experience with the duty of caring for older people comes from working in elder services so it’s more of a societal rather than religious viewpoint. My biggest takeaway from my work is that making sure that the oldest generations are respected and provided with what they need to thrive (just as children and other age groups) is essential to a functioning, caring community. In all of the settings I worked in, older people were the tradition-bearers and essential to the well being of community life, whether that meant they volunteered in city or town governments, or cared for grandchildren of working or absent parents, or served as informal mentors for friends, neighbors, and family. In many places in the US there are a variety of services to help people stay in their homes for a long time, though these may be limited to those who can afford them, and many older people without nearby family have neighbors and friends who will provide the assistance if they know help is needed. I’ve found that one of the best ways to make sure you have the help you need in later life, whether you have children or not, is to develop a wide social circle when you are in middle age.

    Of course, in the US ageism is rampant, and I have also seen how different age groups can become isolated and older people suffer in communities where it isn’t called out. I had one young woman tell me that there shouldn’t be elder services in her town because she never saw older people on the street so there must not be many of them. In fact, a third of her town were older people and they were definitely out and about, she just literally never “saw” them because they were invisible to her. I’m hopeful that as a greater proportion of our population is older, ageism will be less of a problem.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Yes, Carolyn, ageism is indeed rampant in the U.S. And we elderly people do indeed seem to be invisible. Vibha, thanks for this thoughtful post about caring–or not caring–for parents and grandparents as they age.

    Me, I’m in denial. A few years ago, I decided I was going to be 48 for the rest of my life. When I told my son, who was born in 1968, he said, “Go for it.” So I am now five years younger than my son. Seriously, I see ageism all around and don’t want to participate in it. I cherish my health and independence.

    Bright blessings,Vibha, to your parents and your brother. Bright, strong blessings to all of us who aren’t teenagers anymore. Maybe it’s time for the whole world to grow up??

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Very interesting thoughts as well as discussion on this thread. Human relationships are all both unique and tough and perhaps parent child one the more so. We have an ideal of society but not every relationship fits the mold so its hard to have one standard.

    And then what happens when there is abuse in this relationship (in either direction parent to child or child to parent)? I don’t have an answer, its just something that I’m thinking about.

    Thanks for opening up this complicated and important subject.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Both my parents passed away some time ago. Even though I had a troubled relationship with both of them, for different reasons, I had the opportunity to alleviate their loneliness in their last years. It was a privilege and an opportunity I’m glad I chose. Blessings on your own journey.


Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: