“To care for those who once cared for us is one of the highest honours.” – Tia Walker, The Inspired Caregiver.
Ernakulam sub-divisional magistrate Adeela Rabeeh Abdulla is not like most IAS officers.
In addition to her duties as a civil servant, the former MBBS student leads a 42-member volunteer team that works to solve family disputes between aged parents and their children by mediating and providing free counselling.
Many elderly people in India are not aware of their rights due to the high occurrence of illiteracy and lack of alertness. Elder illiteracy directly contributes to a lack of knowledge regarding the human rights for older people in India and contributes to the infringement of those rights. To avoid such incidents from happening, Dr Abdulla and her team began to organise counselling sessions for aged parents and their children to help them reconcile their differences.
The Logical Indian recently interviewed Adeela Abdulla to learn more about her efforts. She is extremely passionate about the rights of elderly citizens. She said, “Whenever I went to public functions, I explained to people how important issues of the elderly are to society. I called for volunteers to our service, and many showed up – because there is a lot of power and satisfaction in this task.”
A passionate team
Dr Abdulla is guided by a faithful array of volunteers. She has the following groups of people who help her in her mission:
- An NGO called MAGICS that works for the elderly;
- Santhwana Counseling Centre;
- Kerala Counsellors Forum;
- independent volunteers like students and others;
- ward members/municipal chairpersons/local committees etc.
Her main ally is the Santhwana Institute of Counselling, Kochi. Together with enthusiastic volunteers from the Institute, Dr Abdulla helps solve disputes between aged parents and their children.
The volunteers are all excited and motivated to render free service. Dr Abdulla says she only helps them by giving them consideration and advice, by giving them relevant files and information, and by motivating them. “Most of them were honoured with our trust; the files that were given for independent consideration were of great help, and so was the training provided by Sreelal Warrier, who is a lawyer at the Kerala High Court, and his team. That training went on for 30 hours or so; by the end of it, the volunteers were all set for the task.”
The team convenes every Tuesday, regularly. “I tell my office to not entrust me with any jobs or meetings on Tuesdays and I don’t take leave or adjourn court on Tuesdays, and neither does my staff … In some instances, the resolution of disputes is prolonged. In the case of disputes where there is prolongation, we call the parties on other days as well. Those conciliators who attended the case are asked to come again. Sometimes, police officers, ward councillors, village officers, priests etc. are also called in. These meetings mainly take place on Tuesdays but meetings can be arranged on other days as well.”
The team manages to resolve disputes without any bitterness remaining between the two parties when they leave the room. There is, of course, a lot of bitterness during the session. However, with a lot of talking, crying, and ventilating experiences – and the legal support that the elderly get and the powers of sub-collectors – the cases get resolved.
Dr Abdulla and her team also conducts follow-ups, surprise visits, house visits, and ask for reports from the police, ward members, and village officers. She told The Logical Indian, “There is a lot of effort involved. Most days we reach home late at night, completely exhausted. But the hard work is worth it. Especially when the parents or their children come back to us to thank us for our efforts – the ordeal is difficult but completely worth it.”
So how do Dr Abdulla and her team solve disputes?
Elder abuse is a serious problem in India. According to a study conducted by Agewell Foundation, 65% of old people are poor with no source of known income. The survey also stated that older women are more prone to suffer abuse due to factors like gender discrimination, a longer lifespan than older men, a longer span of widowhood and no source of income as traditionally most of them are housewives.
Additionally, out of every 10 elderly couples in India, more than 6 are forced by their children to leave their homes.
So according to Dr Abdulla and her team, how can such problems be solved? She gave three pointers:
- conciliation, and
- implementation of the law.
“When I began working on such cases, I had to do all the counselling myself. But now I can mobilise more people to help in solving more such cases. Conciliation has a good role here. As parents get old, we cannot take a regulatory stand against children as parents need children for help – then the children will be more distant from parents emotionally and this will increase the isolation faced by elderly. Hence, counselling or conciliation has a lot of roles.”
She says, “Initially, the conciliators might seem very unprofessional but it’s important that the parties go through the ‘ventilating out feelings’ part of the process. Many feel better after this stage. Slowly, things improve.”
For expert cases, the team also get the help of volunteer lawyers. If that fails, then the tribunal orders the children to opt for conciliation. “If that too fails, then we take steps like cancelling documents or sending them to old age homes or removing children from the houses of parents etc. We get the help of ward councillors, ward members, religious heads etc. to sort out the issue. We try all we can to solve the conflict at the negotiating table itself.”
At times, the team resolves cases filed by aged parents against their children and vice versa. This is an interesting point – and a relatively unheard one at that; what are the instances where children feel the need to file cases against their ageing parents?
Dr Abdulla reveals that there are some such cases, although their prevalence is rare. “Some parents might show partiality between children. Some might show an indifferent approach to their daughter-in-law if she is widowed. There are also some cases where some senile delirium brings parents to the conclusion that their children are harming them. Then there are certain cases between an elderly husband and his wife, long-pending cases leaving children in between the issue without knowing how to make a decision between both of them.”
“The law about the rights of the elderly is strong, but it needs to be implemented properly”
There is a fair amount of legal protection provided to the elderly. “But the legal provisions should also be implemented properly. The Maintenance and Welfare of Senior Citizens Act, 2007 was enacted by Parliament with a vision for speedy solutions to such cases. The Act talks about issuing maintenance to senior citizens. I encourage readers to go through the Act in its entirety.”
The Act is indeed strong in many ways.
- Parents are eligible for a monthly maintenance up to Rs 10,000;
- they can get back property which they had gifted to their children;
- action can be taken against abandoning them or abusing them in any way.
Dr Abdulla urged readers to go through the law and be aware of the same. It can be read in its entirety here.
There is no financial help rendered or received. The volunteers – all 42 of them – and the others who contribute to their efforts do the service free of cost. Sometimes, Dr Abdulla pays for contingencies from her own purse.
“There goes a saying of Khalil Gibran: ‘Bread baked without love is a bitter bread that feeds but half a man’s hunger.’ Funds are scarce, but they are a secondary priority; the primary prerogative is solving personal conflicts and ensuring that estranged families are reunited.”
“Society is not friendly to the aged”
Dr Abdulla opines that such disputes between aged parents and their children can be avoided in the first place. “We rarely study geriatric psychology. There are a lot of psychological changes that happen with ageing along with physical changes. There is a lot of delirium, feeling of exclusion etc. Many body changes like urinary incontinence and difficulty in walking etc. confine them to their homes. Then they lose their friends and their immediate circle of help. With the advent of nuclear families and children settling abroad, things have worsened. There is no one for aged parents to talk to. With new technology, the world in itself is not friendly to the aged. Many face fear of death, depression from loss of their spouses, menopause, or some serious illness.”
We asked Adeela Abdulla if she had any advice for The Logical Indian’s readers.
“Honour the elderly,” she said. “Don’t make fun of them at public places – like addressing as “budda” or “buddi”. Note down the names and details of your parents’ friends. Find out how frequently they are meeting. Notice any changes in your parents like irritability/complaining/seclusion and discuss with them. Remind and reassure your parents how important they are to you. Make age-friendly toilets in houses etc. Remember: we will be just like them when we grow old. Treat them like you would want to be treated when you are old. A society is judged by how it treats its elderly, and our society still has a long way to go.”