The Blog

A Family's Core Task Is to Look After Its Vulnerable Members

The community, society and state enter into the scene and must have their role, but upholding this humane ethos is a 'cradle to the grave' family task.

Our arrival in this world, physical survival in the early years and growth to maturity is totally dependent on adults around us. Our uncertain life span and departure from the world is heavily interlinked with others. In this journey of life, our parents and people close to us are the key people who help shape our lives.

This ethos of dependence and interdependence is in the nature of human life. Nowhere is it more relevant than in our family which is the core institution and pillar of human society. A secured family that is strongly bonded with love, affection and respect amongst its members is an invaluable ingredient of a stable society. In a family it starts with looking after the physical and other basic needs (mental, emotional, etc) of a child after birth, passes through the phase of mutual dependence between generations and then looking after its elderly members. This is a natural life cycle.

The community, society and state enter into the scene and must have their role, but upholding this humane ethos is a 'cradle to the grave' family task.

New parents syndrome

Months of fantasising about our baby, strange dreams and worrisome thoughts come to an end when we hold our newborn baby in our arms. The excitement, ecstasy and natural worry of being a mother and a father can only be understood by those who have gone through the process of conception, growth of the baby within the womb, and its first cries after birth. A baby's journey in life starts with vulnerability that may end up with old age fragility.

We want to be the best parents possible; our awareness of our baby's dependency and our desire to be good parents are a great source of energy as well as stress. A father also experiences new deeper feelings about his wife. He observes with wonder her courage, strength, and endurance during labour; he sees her with admiration. As time flies, both father and mother reshape their life around their children.

Family nurtures interdependence

We all are born alone, however in life we all rely on one another. A family is the training ground for this ethos of interdependence where members connect with one another on the basis of love, care and respect. As separate parts in a machine work together, we do the same for the functioning of a family. Interdependence on real-life situation - such as helping children in their education, giving a hand in family chores or looking after one another when required - fulfils family members' physical, emotional and spiritual needs. These 'small' acts in a family help shape members' moral compass that is so needed in our bewildered individualised society.

This may give rise to some inconveniences and disagreements within a family, as emotions or actions of one member can affect others, but this is life's reality and we should not only learn to live with them but also turn the challenges that arise into joy and adventure. Basic compromise, giving preference to others and significant autonomy of individual members are very important for positive interdependence within the family unit. Autonomy is critical when children enter their adolescent years with a lot of confusion, uncertainty and an emerging sense of independence. Parents should hold their nerve at this stage; their message should be clear - "yes, you are an individual, but still an invaluable member of our family."

With the passage of time, the next phase that comes is elderly care in the family. This has, in recent years, come up as big news with an occasional national scandal. Service provisions at nursery homes and hospices have been found to be failing in many places. As the numbers of elderly people are increasing in proportion, elderly abuse is rising high. General frailty, diseases associated with old age such as dementia and emotional needs demand long term palliative care. With a shrinking health and social care budget, the gap between demand and supply is getting wider; elderly abuse is thus rising. A caring family, value-laden society and accountable state should work together to look after the elderly who need dignified support in their last leg of life. It is cruel for a civilised society not to provide this for its vulnerable members.

Role of faith in the family on elderly care

Faith communities have religion-based moral teachings and varying degrees of know-how to deal with the elderly care; some have in-built institutions to deal with this. Parents and grandparents are seen with veneration in most religious communities and children 'pay their debt' by being extra-loving to them and looking after their needs. This proves as a virtuous circle and win-win situation in a family, as grandparents find an opportunity to give back their knowledge and wisdom to their grandchildren. In the Islamic Holy Book, the Qur'an, God mentions about this reality of old age "He whom we bring unto old age, We reverse him in creation (weak, dependent and with little knowledge or ability to understand, like children). Will they then not understand?" (Chapter 36, Verse 68).

Individualism and over-indulgence in our commercialised life are the virus that have affected modern life, from which very few are immune. This has given rise to self-centred lifestyles in which the noble task of looking after the elderly people is ignored. Ageism is bringing occasional disgrace in modern technological society.

Civilised people are known for their dignified treatment of weaker people within their midst, including the old-age pensioners who gave everything to the society in their adult life. It is only sensible we nurture our humanity and humility and give a fraction of our love and care to those who did this to us when we were extremely fragile. It is only a matter of time before we ourselves enter into this phase of frailty. A family based on strong ethos of positive interdependence is irreplaceable in every society.

(Dr) Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, author, community activist and parenting consultant (