Vol. 2 No. 1 (2019): International Journal of Aging Research
Research Articles

“Beyond shame and sorrow”: Abandoned elderly women in India speak out

Olya Clark, PhD
School of Public Health and Health Sciences, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
  • “Beyond shame and sorrow”, Abandoned elderly women, India speak out
How to Cite
Olya Clark, PhD. (2019). “Beyond shame and sorrow”: Abandoned elderly women in India speak out. International Journal of Aging Research, 2(1), 28. https://doi.org/10.28933/ijoar-2019-02-2605


I heard the story of Lakshamma from a couple of my friends who met her at the bus stop in Bangalore, South India. ‘You know, she did not look comfortable when she approached us asking for money’, my friend told me. ‘She quickly added that she was not a beggar and she felt bad doing that.’ Lakshamma told my friends that she had no choice because of her current situation. They gave her some money and asked if they could do anything else for her. First, she seemed both startled and grateful at this question. Then she told them her story. “My name is Lakshamma. I am 62 years old. I live in Shivajinagar, one of the neighborhoods in Bangalore, with my son and daughter-in-law. My son is a sales manager in one of the city malls and works long hours six days a week. A couple of months ago, my daughter-in-law who does not work and stays at home, started making every excuse to not have me at home as much as possible. She used to ask me to go to the neighbors or to the shop to get something and when I got back I found the door of the house locked. After unsuccessfully calling to my daughter-in-law to open the door, I had to sit and wait until the door was unlocked if my daughter-in-law was inside or until my son came home in the evening. I did not complain to my son because he came home tired and sleepy most of the evenings and went to bed right after the quick supper. Pretty soon the daughter-in-law told me not to stay near the house during the day but to go somewhere else, so the neighbors do not start talking. She never gave me any money or any food besides meager meal in the morning and that’s how I ended up at this bus stop asking people for money to survive until I have to go home in the evening.”
After hearing this story, I had a lot of unanswered questions at the time about this elderly woman whom I never met. What were the societal triggers that made it possible for Lakshamma to end up in this situation? Did Lakshamma’s son know about his mother’s situation? Did he pretend not to know and sided with his wife? What were the reasons for Lakshamma to be subjected to this treatment? Where else could she turn for help instead of just trying to get some money from the total strangers at a bus stop? How was she treated by the rest of the society? Those were among the questions that I hoped to answer some day doing this research work. During my previous work in Bangalore, I encountered an alarming number of women, especially elderly women, who were finding themselves even in worse daily situations than Lakshamma. They had been abandoned by their family members due to the economic instability of the family, the breakdown of the extended family system, and other reasons. They are thrown out of their homes, subsist on handouts, are exploited, and often are victims of street violence.
Traditionally, old age and women in India have been identified with the image of the multigenerational family, with the expectation that adult children will care for their aging parents. The family has been the most important social institution for the care of the elderly and has been expected to serve the role of primary care-giver, the principal source of support and security in old age. In stereotypical images, older adults in India are supposed to be perceived as wise, spiritually focused, and economically and socially stable (Nandan, 2007). However, as I came to increasingly appreciate during the course of this work, the capacity of the family to care for the elderly, as well as the availability and quality of support services, is dependent on the economic and social circumstances of the family, the overall political-economic environment, and changing economic conditions resulting from globalization and urbanization. During the last two decades, the decreasing family size, immigration and other changes in society have started posing challenges for care in India. The elderly can no longer solely depend on family to take care of them. Old age homes are filling the gap to a certain extent. But as of now, it is not a popular and affordable choice for most. Traditionally, old age homes were meant for the poor and destitute and hence mostly managed by charitable organizations, but in recent years, paid facilities have also emerged to cater to the needs of middle and upper middle-class older persons, who can pay for care in old age (Dutta, 2017).
The abandonment of elderly people in India and other places is not a new phenomenon. However, Salerno (2012) asserts that abandonment is central to modern times. He argues that while forms of abandonment and reactions to it vary from society to society, it appears to have taken on enormous social and cultural importance in modern life and characterizes not only our superficial relationships, but also many of our most intimate ones. As people’s life experiences are structured by wider societal relations, it is important to set the issue of abandonment of elderly within the larger historical, social and politico-economic contexts. In examining the issue of abandoned elderly women in India, my research focuses on identifying the linkages between the individual families and the wider structures and processes of society. As class and caste positions constitute the key social contexts essential to understanding the lives of women in all stages of life, I also examine what significance class and caste of abandoned elderly women have in shaping, sustaining and changing these women’s lives and experiences.
In this article I wish to focus on the abandonment-related experiences lived and told by the elderly women abandoned by their family members in Bangalore, South India. These experiences present alternate realities of powerlessness of the beggared and displaced faced by abandoned elderly in the society. They contrast with the official versions focused on the power that elderly females gradually acquire within their families as they get older.


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