The common thread is that loneliness lurks in the old age. But that’s not talked about often, at least not publicly.
According to the study by Holt-Lunstad and team, the support of family, friends and neighbors can increase your chances of living to a healthy old age by 50 percent.
By the time urban Nepali children enter teenage their eyes are firmly set on the US, the UK, or Australia. As soon as they complete higher secondary, they start applying to colleges abroad. In a couple years, they are flying already.
Parents are happy behind, or so they appear. At least the society lauds the family for their success in sending their wards abroad. Often, on their children’s graduation, parents go abroad, take photos against a nice backdrop, and post them on Facebook. Then the desperate counting of ‘likes’ and answering comments starts. That’s a typical storyline of modern Nepali families.
A second part of the story is often not reported on Facebook. Without children, homes no longer remain homes. As Nepali parents are not used to living away from their children, the house starts to haunt. There is also a different storyline for some families that are not as lucky. There, aging parents suffer from neglect.
The common thread is that loneliness lurks in the old age. Though that’s not talked about often, at least not publicly. Forget doing a research on it. But there have been some research abroad. Terming loneliness an ‘epidemic’ The New York Times reported in 2016 that “In Britain and the US, roughly one in three people older than 65 live alone, and in the US, half of those older than 85 live alone.” Studies in the two countries show the prevalence of loneliness among people older than 60 ranging from 10 percent to 46 percent.
Loneliness and resulting health issues became big enough to prompt former British Prime Minister Theresa May to appoint a ‘loneliness minister’ in January 2018.
“Loneliness is one of the greatest public health challenges of our time,” May was reported as saying while launching a cross-government strategy to tackle it. She said all general practitioners in England should be able to refer patients experiencing loneliness to community activities and voluntary services by 2023.
The missing touch
In the US, a study of 300,000 people concluded that social isolation is as bad for one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic. It also does more damage to your health than not exercising—and is twice as harmful as obesity. Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University in Utah, who led the study, said friends and family influenced health for the better by offering a ‘calming touch’ or by helping people find meaning in their lives.
This ‘calming touch’ of friends and family has been a characteristic of the Nepali society. But that is in a decline. The family touch is much valued in Nepal, and its absence becomes glaring and a major cause of sorrow, especially in old age.
“These days, the family fabric is wearing thin. We come across many cases where sons feel their old parents do not meet their modern standards,” says Bina Aryal, 70, a former teacher of Lainchaur-based Kanya School. “In a family system where sons look after their ageing parents, this is not the right thing to do. It breaks the parents’ hearts.”
Says Pushkar Prasad Aryal, 67: “In old age when you are physically weak, your mind is also weak. Somebody says a small thing to you, you are seriously hurt. And when it’s your own children, you are devastated.”
Pushkar chairs Baristha Nagarik Samaj (Senior Citizens Society) Nepal, a non-profit that works as a support group for senior citizens. The organization provides platform for people to meet and share their feelings. It offers music classes and gives yoga and meditation sessions in addition to counseling people on social and
“We know there are psychological issues with our members and visitors, mostly related to their sons and daughters. You don’t like to be ostracized by your own children at an age when you need them the most,” says Pushkar.
Often children living abroad do not want their parents to join them as it disturbs their life, according to Bina. If at all, they invite the parents to help during pregnancy. “The parents feel exploited and neglected in a foreign land. We know of cases when sons have hidden their parents’ passports so that they don’t go back before the post-natal care is over.”
Rejected in love
The ‘weakening’ of family bond is largely caused by materialistic thinking and lack of moral education, according to Rajani Basnet, 68, a former teacher at Baneshwor-based Ratna Rajya School. She laments the disappearance of moral education from school curriculum. “The eastern tradition of parental care was so beautiful. It used to be part of moral education in schools. But no longer,” she rues. “Now don’t expect this family fabric to be as
strong as before.”
Weak family bond causes loneliness among senior people. And it is likely to develop into a serious health issue in the future, if not now.
As per Bina, who is also an executive member of the Senior Citizens Society Nepal, people do not like to discuss it. “They come here, we know they are shattered from within. Many try to hide their tears, often unsuccessfully,” says Bina. “Quite understandably, nobody likes to talk about being rejected by their own children.”
There was no data available as to how many senior citizens felt dejected or how many of them had mental issues. The country’s mental health care system remains woeful. As per 2011 Population Census, nine percent of the country’s people are senior citizens. (The Senior Citizens Act 2006 defines anybody above 60 as a senior citizen.) After turning 70, they get a monthly government stipend of Rs 3,000. That they may need psychological care is out of government radar.
There are brighter stories as well. Bhairab Neupane, a retired public health professional, is on a perennial vacation. One of his daughters is in the US, and another one and a son in Australia. His fourth daughter moves between India and the US for work. His wife too moves between Australia and the US to spend time with the children. Neupane has no issue staying home in Kathmandu. His accident a decade ago restricts his travels, but he has a lot of support from extended family and friends. And there is the Facebook Messenger that helps him connect with his three daughters and son. Sometimes Viber also comes handy.
Neupane spends around four hours a day on average connecting with family and friends. Pushkar does the same. His one son is a permanent resident of Australia, and the other is a Nepal Army officer serving UN peacekeeping force in Sudan. He also relies heavily on Facebook Messenger and Viber. His engagement with the Senior Citizens’ Society gives him a cushion and a satisfaction of helping lonely senior citizens.
Healthy old age
A 2009 Harvard research paper draws from multiple sources in associating loneliness with the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, increased vascular resistance, elevated blood pressure, poor sleep, diminished immunity, alcoholism, suicidal ideation and behavior, and increased mortality in older adults. So being connected definitely helps. According to the study by Holt-Lunstad and team, the support of family, friends and neighbors can increase your chances of living to a healthy old age by 50 percent.
As Mother Teresa once said: “We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love”.