When it comes to the elderly, West beats East

Simon Hughes got it wrong, it's the rest of the world that should learn from us when it comes to caring for older people



Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat justice minister, wants Britain to learn about caring for the elderly from our immigrant cultures, praising Asian and African communities for their exemplary attitude towards seniors. As an Indian, I agree that there is much that can be learnt, but Mr Hughes’s assertion was far too simplistic, and even wrong on several counts.

Thanks in part to a generous welfare state, Britain actually stands heads and shoulders above many nations in terms of the quality of life older people enjoy. In less developed countries, a lack of nationwide pensions and dependable free healthcare mean that elderly people without a family to look after them are left to fend for themselves. In India and China, caring for your parents is as much about societal censure and the avoidance of scandal as it is about genuine love. From birth, the eldest son is aware of his obligations: care for your parents physically and financially, and keep them with you. But this tradition leads to serious problems in society. Across Asia, daughters are seen as a liability, since they leave their family when they get married. Sons are vastly preferred. Female infanticide in the East stems as much from a parent’s fear about their old age as it does from the prestige that comes from having a son.

While politicians in the West are a young lot, in the East and Africa the elderly often assume a central role in governance. It is not uncommon to see octogenarian politicians, or the wizened villager acting as local dispute mediators in African villages. As farfetched as it might sound, rheumy eyes, a doddering gait and gnarled limbs lend authority. But there is a serious caveat: these roles are reserved for the upper classes; the aged and fragile people of a poorer class lead a rather grim life.

A lack of old age homes and state sponsored community care means that many older people end up  as virtual prisoners, housebound in multiple storey buildings in city centres, where the raison d'être of their life is babysitting their grandchildren. Many feel as if they are a burden on their families, and that their presence limits the freedom of their children.

We all have an idealised version of what our parents will be like when they are in the dusk of their lives. The thought of a Westerner playing bingo and gossiping in their care home sounds lovely. So too does the Chinese equivalent of gathering in squares en masse to practice Tai Chi, and the Indian version of privileged elders of the village. But the truth is that for many, in Britain or elsewhere, the arrival of old age brings only misery, as the individual feels their physical and mental selves putrefy, their independence limit and their lifestyles change irrevocably.

The fact is the average pensioner enjoys a better standard of life in Britain in almost every way. If anything, the East can learn from the West on how to make life better for its aged and infirm. There are stories of whole villages deserted by their working age populations in China, and of the wandering widows of Mathura in India scraping by on a diet of stale chapatis at temples.

If Simon Hughes is suggesting that we learn societal censure from our immigrant population, and castigate those that leave their parents to fend for themselves, then perhaps he has a point. But he is a member of the Coalition, and I take his words with a pinch of salt. I think he is more concerned with saving on social care costs while the Government continue their cuts. Is the Coalition suggesting that the family, not the state, must now bear the greater responsibility for the elderly?

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