Monday, September 09, 2013

Legislating filial love

A few months ago, I read about a law that makes it mandatory for Chinese citizens to visit elderly parents. 

My immediate thought was that this is an unimaginative, if not un-implementable, law. My next thought was — have matters really come to a pass that the state must legislate family relationships? 

Then I remembered that India had also passed the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, in 2007. It asks children to maintain a ‘normal’ life for parents, but didn’t mention emotional needs. In China, parents have been suing children for neglect. Some reports mentioned ‘ill-treatment and abandonment’, others refer to ‘filial piety’. So, the government is saying that their ‘daily, financial and spiritual needs’ should be met by grown children. In theory, it’s a reasonable expectation — children should visit aging parents. They should call, and Skype, and express affection. But if they do not want to, can a law make them? Even in India, few parents have the heart — or the physical energy — to drag negligent offspring to court.

It is impossible to seek affection legally. And I am not sure it is a good idea to force young (or middle-aged) people to pretend at love. Besides, if affection is being made a legal construct, perhaps lawmakers should also consider the truth of family life. Not every parent considers the emotional needs of a child. Many parents assume they’ve done their duty if they just cater to physical needs, and make him/her employable. It is foolish and unjust to expect that all children will grow up to lavish affection upon all parents.

Indians are like the Chinese when it comes to family expectations. In one report, a Chinese woman was quoted as saying that in their culture, parents invest in children as a support for their old age. I can imagine lots of Indian parents expressing similar views. But I cannot imagine that children like being treated as some sort of emotional-social security plan.

In the Chinese context, everyone is pointing fingers at the one-child norm. It is estimated that by 2050, every third Chinese will be a senior citizen. But the problem of more and more old people and fewer young people is a global one. 

There was another report from Japan, where it is estimated that by 2020, the market for adult diapers will be larger than that for baby diapers. 

India already has 100 million senior citizens and by 2050, every fifth Indian will be old. Not only do we not have universal pension coverage, most pensions are too small to allow an aging, ill person to survive independently. 

Most Indians cannot afford the basics — clean water, safe housing, a varied diet, decent education — even for small children. Steady jobs are hard to come by. 

‘Parents’ emotional needs’ are low on the list of priorities. And though that is not a justification for the abuse or neglect of the elderly, we must not forget that there is also an emotional cost for children — to know that there are ways to keep parents alive and healthy, but not the means.

So, what should children and parents and the government do? For one, we can start investing in the future instead of waiting to reach a point of crisis. Senior citizens need an upgrade of skills in middle age. They need access to legal aid to ensure their property is not taken away. They need regular events and public spaces where they can meet other people of all ages, and they need community-supported retirement homes and hospices. Even if those are not ideal choices, the choice must exist.  

First published here

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