Almost 450 elderly people call the elderly helpline (1090) in Bangalore every year to report abuse by family members. Data accessed from the helpline, established jointly 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 of abuse.
The number of complaints has increased every year, says Premkumar Raja, co-founder of NMT. The helpline received 430 complaints in 2021-21 and 447 in 2021-22. This year, only from April to September, 312 complaints have been registered.
Verbal abuse is the 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 between 30 and 40 complaints are registered each year. “The older person can be pushed or squeezed with force to hurt them. There was even a case of an old lady being scorched by cigarettes,” says a helpline official.
She says that the police are involved in about 10% of the complaints, mostly cases of physical abuse and severe verbal abuse. Of all complaints, about 60% are resolved with counseling, she adds.
“Property-related cases are difficult for us to resolve beyond one point. The opposing party can file a legal case that will last for years and there will be no way out for the elderly person,” says the official. The helpline closes unresolved cases if the parties wish to discontinue counseling after several rounds, or if the complainant fails to provide adequate details of the opposing party.
In fact, older people often make verbal rather than written complaints. In 2020-21, 234 complaints were given verbally, while only 196 were written complaints. “In the case of many verbal complaints, the older adult only wants to talk about her problems with a third party. In our society, there is a lot of stigma attached to dysfunctional family relationships, so they don’t have a way to talk about it,” says the official.
In addition to property issues, the main reasons for abuse include lack of adjustment, lack of care, financial problems, or failure to provide parental support. The data shows that sons are the most common abusers, followed by daughters-in-law and daughters.
“Chronic abuse causes a person to withdraw, suffer from depression, lose weight and have trouble sleeping. Due to inadequate care, patients with conditions such as arthritis and Parkinson’s can fall. If the family does not provide adequate food or medicine, the patient may also become bedridden,” says Dr. Ananya Das, a geriatric medicine consultant at Manipal hospitals.
“We see elderly patients who become emaciated or bedridden in a short period for no obvious reason, which could be due to abuse or neglect.”
Dr PT Sivakumar, head of geriatric psychiatry at Nimhans, says the complaints reaching the helpline are just the tip of the iceberg. Many seniors do not complain because they are not aware that they are being abused or do not have the resources to seek help. Elderly patients with mental or neurological problems, including dementia, are also often abused by their families in an attempt to control their behavior, he says.
“In addition to crisis intervention through counselling, a volunteer-driven system with long-term follow-up in elder abuse cases is needed. The person could be moved to a better and safer environment if possible,” she says.