Government Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has stirred the uncomfortable debate about the elderly in Britain. And we find that when such a debate arises, people scramble to layer upon layer with reasons as to why direct caring for elderly parents cannot be a norm in the UK, or many liberal societies for that matter.
Yes, there are issues of financial difficulties for carers. Yes, many adults live and work in different cities to their parents. And yes, caring for the elderly can be a physically demanding role where you may get very little in return.
But besides all of this, caring for the elderly is still a debate we need to have. Why? Because ultimately the elderly woman who may die alone in her high-rise flat next week, the lonely man who will sit and wait for his children to drop by in the nursing home, are the us of yesterday. They are the ones who worked in the jobs which built our society to what it is today. They are the ones who nurtured the children who are the adults running the show, of today. The society we build is upon the bricks that today's elderly lay yesterday, it would be inhumane to disregard them.
Yes, there are implications in caring for older people yourself and not discarding them to a home - A predominant one being the financial ability to care full-time in a Capitalist society where the entire set-up requires both adults in a family to work to make ends meet. But even before we talk practicalities, we need to question why the notion of treasuring elderly parents by caring for them is so devalued and met with a barrage of reasons why we cannot, in the first place.
Hunt may have proposed that Britain learn something from Asian culture, but first something needs to be unlearnt from liberal culture. The culture that has pervaded society, shaping the wide scale decisions people make in their lives. It is the culture of putting oneself and ones' life first, over the needs of others. And indeed Capitalist societies, measuring everything by financial gain, give little value to unpaid carers of families, whereas people in paid work across the board are seen as successful and progressing in life.
So caring for parents ultimately falls low on the scale in Capitalist liberal societies. No one wants to dedicate their days doing the unglamorous jobs of feeding, cleaning after and providing long-running company to an older person. That would be too taxing, boring and frankly impinge on all the personal ambitions one had in ones' own life. The solution has been to pay someone else to do it all. But unfortunately no amount of money can provide what the elderly crave most at this point in their life - Love of those closest to them.
In addition, we have seen the impact a caring environment devoid of love and tender care has had. Many paid carers, of course not all, do the caring with callous short-cuts. As a result we have all seen the 'abuse' and ' neglect' in care homes headlines. So to deny an entire generation of society basic levels of care very often, as well as love, dignity and value in the last stage of their life is a real blip of a society, that cannot go amiss.
This is an issue, Islam has defined in a crystal clear manner:
"And your Lord has decreed that you not worship except Him, and to parents, good treatment. Whether one or both of them reach old age while with you, say not to them so much as 'uff' [i.e., an expression of irritation or disapproval] and do not repel them but speak to them a noble word. And lower to them the wing of humility out of mercy and say: 'My Lord! Have mercy upon them as they brought me up when I was small.'" [Quran 17:23-24]
Muslims attach enormous value to looking after parents and upholding a strong relationship with them in their old age. This means that decisions made throughout life take this value into account - That parents will always be a strong part of the picture, even though it maybe difficult and taxing in ones' own life at times. In fact, to go through such difficulties whether it be financial or personal sacrifices is seen as an honour.
Under an Islamic ruling system the functioning of a society where everyone's needs are catered for is the priority - Not just those of the able and financially superior. Rather being able to look after the vulnerable and the elderly is seen as a great honour by individuals and society as a whole, as it brings much reward in the Hereafter.
Potential soldiers for the army were turned away if they had elderly parents who relied on them, by the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) as serving parents was a duty that could not be foregone even for war. The second ruler of Islam Abu Bakr Siddique highlighted the importance of honouring the elderly, when whilst as ruler of the Islamic state, he would dedicate his mornings to visiting a blind old lady in the suburbs of the city who had no one to help her. Without revealing his identity he would help her with her household chores every morning, servicing her without fail and return to commence his day. These attitudes were the result of the unchanging Islamic view towards the elderly. Thus under the Islamic ruling system, the elderly could never be forgotten.
The way this would function is society would be geared in a manner which would make caring for parents a social norm. The Islamic family set-up requires only one spouse to work and the other to maintain the family. This enables the wife and mother to commit to the nurturing of the family, children to elderly. Undoubtedly such caring is not an easy job, but when such caring is held in great esteem in society and in the eyes of God, it becomes a role holding much respect and admiration. The impact being, a society is created where everyone is looked after and valued.
Indeed such an Islamic model of a society does not exist anywhere today and we see the effects of Capitalism even affecting Muslims and their families in the Muslim lands. However the repercussions of such neglect of the elderly will always be the same wherever we are, and therefore it is really needed for us all to wake up and think about our attitudes.
The undeniable reality is one day we to will be the elderly. We to will need help and support and we to will hope that the children we raised with our sweat and toil year after year, will give back a fraction of that, starting with the consistent love and care.
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