Looking after the Elderly: An age old problem
The common view of winter is a time characterised with holidays, the giving of gifts and spending time with one’s family. However, the elderly and those of old age are not always included in this rosy and romanticised picture of winter. Rather they face neglect, the cold and a fear of death. According to the charity organisation Age UK, an elderly person dies every 7 minutes due to the cold. Whilst it is easy to dismiss this as a non-preventable occurrence due to the weather, a widened view of this problem reveals another failure of Capitalism.
The first bitter fruit of Capitalism upon the elderly is the crisis of fuel poverty. The oligopolistic and privatised energy market has led many amongst the elderly to pay large amounts of their limited income on fuel. Considering the income of the elderly and the ever-increasing energy costs many are forced to restrict or ration heating their homes and some are even forced to choose between eating or heating.
This is the direct result of an economic model which allows natural resources to belong to individuals to sell at a price they see fit. This criticism extends beyond the “big six” energy companies in the U.K. It extends right through the production line. Including the stock markets which trade natural resources and artificially manipulate prices as well as the private owners of the crude oil reserves around the world.
In contrast, Islam prohibits the privatisation of natural resources including energy reserves. Thus, there is no profit-making motive in selling crude oil at ridiculous costs. In addition to this, the refining process and distribution process are all included in not being permitted to be held in private company ownership. Rather, the Khilafah State overlooks the extraction and process of crude oil, or any valuable energy resource, and would employ firms to do this. Therefore, the only cost to the public would be the cost of production enabling all people affordable access. This is understood from the hadith;
“The people are partners in three things, fire, Pasteur and water” [Abu Dawud]
Societal View on the Elderly
Unfortunately, the elderly are often considered a burden in western societies. There exists a mindset which only values a person based on the economic benefit they provide. Once someone reaches an age where they can no longer work they are seen as an ‘overhead’ or necessary cost upon society.
This callous mentality is built upon primarily seeing people as economic agents. That is to say, all things have a cost and a price and should be treated as so. Those who have a high earning power are deemed productive as they will pay taxes, spend more money and have a beneficial impact on the economy. On the contrary, the elderly who have completed their work life and are now pensioners are a strain on the economy and successive governments have a hard time deciding on how to deal with their ageing population.
Just recently a Japanese minister was reported insulting the elderly again and encouraging them to die. Finance minister Taro Aso said, “How much longer do you intend to keep living?” and in 2013 he said the elderly should “hurry up and die”.
On a family level, this view of the elderly as a ‘burden’ sees scores of old people who are in need of day to day help being neglected by their closest relatives. This is evident from the rising number of care homes and the need for charities to help the elderly. Thus, people are cast aside at their most vulnerable age and at the time they are most in need often by their own children. The result is loneliness, depression and isolation save a yearly visit or greetings card.
The abandonment of the elderly can be attributed to the individualistic nature of society. A mindset which means each person only cares for their own self, or their most immediate dependents, with little regard for anyone else. Elderly and needy parents or relatives don’t fit into this equation and hence are treated with little respect or due care.
If one were to ask the question of western society, “Are selfish desires dominant or are selfless desires dominant?”. The answer to this is obviously the former. Had selfless desires been dominant there would be no crisis related to the poor, elderly or vulnerable.
The Islamic way of life differs completely with Liberal Capitalism by promoting the wellbeing of others; putting the needs of others before yourself and going out of your way to help those in need. This is seen in the various ahadith encouraging the giving of charity, treating fellow human beings with kindness and respect and an emphasis on family life, the elderly and parents.
“Your Lord has commanded that you worship none but Him, and that you be kind to your parents. If one or both of them reach old age with you, do not say to them a word of disrespect, or scold them, but say a generous word to them. And act humbly to them in mercy, and say, ‘My Lord, have mercy on them, since they cared for me when I was small” (17: 23-24).
A society built upon Islam as its foundation nurtures individuals with a strong sense of accountability to Allah (swt), a consciousness of Allah (swt) in every action they do (Taqwa) and citizens from an early age who are eager to achieve the pleasure of Allah (swt) by obeying him (swt) and his commands. Those in old age and the elderly wouldn’t be considered a burden but rather a blessing who offer experience, wisdom and insight into many matters. Someone to learn from rather than to ignore and someone to be treated with dignity rather than be left alone.
“Part of glorifying Allah is honouring the grey-haired Muslim.” [Abu Dawud]
“He is not one of us who does not show mercy to our young ones and respect our old ones.” [Tirmidhi]
Role of the State
The Khilafah State adopts the right balance between acting as a backstop to those who are genuinely in need, by means of physical or financial help, whilst ensuring individuals take on their necessary responsibilities as the first means of help to those closest to them who need assistance. The Khilafah State plays a crucial role in reminding us all of our ties of kinship to elderly relatives and parents alike, this further strengthens the family unit as the cornerstone of a just and humane society that means no one can ever fall through the ‘net’ in not having their basic needs met.
The current problems the elderly face are products of the western Capitalist system. The solutions presented such as subsidising fuel, increasing the age of retirement, charity groups and care homes are not real answers but patch work fixes which numb the issue, whilst creating more. At its root, this is because humans do not have the ability to foresee all human issues nor give an answer to all human problems. The resulting legislation and solutions will simply fail.
It’s time an alternative way of life was considered that is applicable to the whole of mankind; that puts looking after the needs of human beings, the elderly included, firmly at the centre of its laws and systems, which emphasises selflessness rather than greed and will actually take care of people despite their age. This system is Islam.